Mixed feelings about international students

1 in 3 Canadian undergraduates surveyed agreed foreign peers hindered learning

Every once in a while, a student newspaper contributor will float the idea that in a time when universities are short on resources (seats in the library, face-time with profs, one-ply toilet paper) we ought to consider cutting or capping international student enrollment. A student at UBC Okanagan recently waded into this argument.

“With the constant increase of international students in order to cover shortfalls, are we displacing seats of domestic students? Any administrator you talk to will argue that this measure does not displace seats, but what about the infrastructure of UBC? Won’t we eventually run out of space in the library?”

History students might recognize the dangers of this discussion. When resources get tight, a minority group is an easy scapegoat. And until now, we didn’t know how domestic students fell about their international peers, an increasingly important question as international enrollment doubled from six per cent of the total in 1992 to 12 per cent of the total in 2010. A new study by Higher Education Strategy Associates, who surveyed 1,398 domestic students, shows positive and negative feelings.

First, the good news. When asked how many of their “five closest friends made at university” were international students, 43 per cent of domestic students agreed it was least one. This suggests international students are being socially integrated with domestic students, allowing them to learn from each other. On top of that, nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) of all domestic students reported that their “perspective on the world had been enriched” by their international acquaintances. Six in 10 agreed that the reputation of their schools had benefited from having international students.

Now, some bad news. Many domestic students agreed that international students mean more competition. Four in 10 agreed there was more competition for campus jobs. It’s easy to see why. The federal government doesn’t let international students work off campus without a $150 permit, an issue highlighted recently by the high-profile deportation of two Nigerian students who worked illegally at a Wal-Mart in Regina. Since international students can’t easily work off campus, they often get first pick of cushy campus jobs. That leads to jealously. Pressure is being put on Ottawa by the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations to allow all international students to work off campus.

The other bad news is that one-third of domestic students agree that, “there have been occasions where having international students in class have hindered my classroom learning experience.” It’s hard to know exactly what this means but it could suggest significant numbers of domestic students feel displaced by their international peers or perhaps they believe classroom discussions or group work is frustrated by peers with poor English skills, a problem professors and student groups have recently pointed out while pushing for better English admissions standards or more English as a Second Language funding.

On the topic of language, the same survey pointed to another big problem. Seven in 10 students agreed that they had an instructor or teaching assistant who was difficult to comprehend due to poor command of English or French and nearly one in three had an instructor whose official language ability, “significantly or negatively hindered their ability to be successful in a course.”

It’s a sensitive subject but this new data should help the discussion evolve.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.