COVID-19 could have northern Ontario universities feeling the pandemic pinch

Post-secondary institutions in the region rely heavily on international-student tuition. But what if the pandemic keeps those students at home?
By Jon Thompson - Published on Jul 03, 2020
In 2019-20, Lakehead University, in Thunder Bay, accepted 1,500 international students. (iStock/benedek)

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THUNDER BAY — In April, the Northern Policy Institute issued a warning to post-secondary institutions in the region: COVID-19 will likely mean a drop in international-student enrolment — so contingency planning must begin now.

In its briefing note, NPI forecast that as many as half of international students may not return in the fall, resulting in an estimated $58 million loss for northern schools.

The institute’s calculations show that Lakehead University, in Thunder Bay, stands to lose the most: a worst-case scenario would see the institutions down $28.8 million in projected international-student revenue.

Used student-spending surveys, it puts the economic impact of international students on northern Ontario’s economy at around $50 million.

Policy analyst Hilary Hagar reached her conclusions using student enrolment figures for 2017-18 and predictive models based on growth. During that year, Lakehead University’s international-student body doubled, exceeding 1,000 students for the first time. In 2019-20, the school accepted 1,500. Thunder Bay’s Confederation College, meanwhile, accepted three times more international students than it had five years prior.

Hagar says that a shorter recruitment season and limited travel opportunities due to COVID-19 restrictions both play into lower enrolment expectations. “The potential for decline in international students could have a significant negative impact on the whole northern Ontario region,” she says. “This shows the need for post-secondary administrators and local leaders to plan and strategize over the coming months.”

In September 2019, international students — primarily from China, India, and Nigeria — constituted 16 per cent of Lakehead’s student body. The school’s strategic plan calls for staff to diversify student countries of origin and increase that share to 20 per cent of its 8,500-student population by 2022.

A statement issued to TVO.org on behalf of Lakehead president and vice-chancellor Moira McPherson says that her university did not provide NPI with data and that she would refrain from making any statement about the report. McPherson writes that Lakehead’s economic impact on the city is $900 million to $1 billion annually, adding, “International recruitment at Lakehead University involves specialists and recruiters around the world. Lakehead continues to work with all of them as we develop strategies to anticipate and adapt to ever-changing policy and legislation.”

Compounding the issue is that northern Ontario universities and colleges could also lose some of the international students already attending, due to increasing tuition costs.

International-student tuition for the undergraduate engineering program at Lakehead will go from $28,400 to $32,000 next year. According to Lakehead University’s 2019-20 budget, it collected $44.4 million in domestic tuition (9 per cent less than 2018-2019) — and $32.7 million in international tuition (18 per cent more than the previous year). Taking into account the $1.3 million it received in full-time-equivalent student funding, Lakehead’s international-student revenues add up to $34 million; NPI’s estimates them at $57 million.

On June 26, fourth-year mechanical-engineering student Mishel Mani, who moved to Thunder Bay from India, led a small group of international students in staging a demonstration outside Lakehead. International students, who were ineligible for the $9 billion federal student relief package, were protesting the second straight year of double-digit-percentage tuition increases.

“In the global pandemic, we should be paying less,” he says. “ It’s very difficult for international students, especially the ones coming from developing countries — the majority of us. Our parents back home, they’re in financial crisis because our economies are failing, and, with this pandemic, some of them will probably be even worse.”

Alex Usher, the president of the Toronto-based consulting firm Higher Education Strategy Associates, says that some Ontario universities are better equipped than others to absorb the enrolment decline.

He says that neither northern Ontario nor the province as a whole is an outlier when it comes to an increasing reliance on international students. “I’m not sure we’ve given our institutions many choices other than international students,” Usher says. “We’ve elected a provincial government that doesn’t want to spend taxpayer dollars in that sector. So your only other choice is actually to shrink the institution.”

A spokesperson from Ontario’s Ministry of Colleges and Universities tells TVO.org via email that the province has committed an additional $25 million for publicly funded post-secondary institutions during the pandemic “to help address each institution’s most pressing needs.” While the federal government arranged for international subtends with study permits to complete up to half of their program online if they were unable to travel to Canada during the May/June summer term, the province is working to help Ontario institutions take advantage of online options, should COVID-19 restrictions continue into the fall.

“The government has partnered with eCampus Ontario to deliver online exam proctoring on a voluntary basis to all publicly-funded colleges and universities across the province,” the statement reads. “eCampus Ontario and Contact North will continue to operate online, providing support to students and institutions across the province.”

In its report, NPI recommends that the federal government extend study visas for international students already in Canada to encourage further post-secondary enrolment from them. It also suggests that the federal and provincial governments support “aggressive” outreach abroad to attract more students.

Finally, the report indicates that social programs, such as the Canada Emergency Student Benefit, could potentially enable more domestic students to attend post-secondary institutions. “Both administrators of post-secondary institutes and community leaders have the remaining months to strategize and plan a way forward,” the report concludes. “Time should not be wasted to set these plans in motion.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that all international-student tuition would be going up to $32,000. In fact, it is only tuition in the undergraduate engineering program.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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