Why depending on international students is a double-edged sword for Ontario schools

Some Ontarians worry that international students are taking spots at universities and colleges away from locals. Instead, they should be grateful that those students are picking up our government’s financial slack
By Steve Paikin - Published on May 8, 2019
a university building
International students make up a large proportion of the populations of post-secondary institutions such as the University of Toronto. (iStock.com/peterspiro)

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Believe it or not, for the better part of four decades, Ontario has been a kind of post-secondary-education superpower. Our universities and colleges are among the best in the world, and the world has taken notice.

The province’s reputation as a reliable educator of the world’s students has never been more justified than over the past few years (and that’s saying something, given that our reputation goes way back: it’s a little-known fact that the Shah of Iran once asked then-premier Bill Davis to send Ontario’s minister of colleges and universities to Tehran to help the country establish a college system similar to ours). Thanks to their quality and accessibility — and a relatively cheap Canadian dollar — Ontario colleges and universities have been setting records for attendance by international students.

Donald Trump hasn’t hurt either. The so-called Trump bump has been keenly felt in the post-secondary sector; international students and faculty who might once have considered America the best place to get an education are fleeing our southern neighbour due to the current administration’s hostile attitude toward non-citizens. Before Trump became commander-in-chief, international students were spending $2.75 billion annually in tuition fees and expenses here. Now, less than three years later, it’s $4.5 billion — an astonishing increase.

A somewhat perverse side effect of this added interest from international students is that it’s allowed provincial governments to show their colleges and universities a lot less love. Since 2009, the provinces have cut back their financial support to their post-secondary sectors by a total of $1.6 billion. (Doug Ford’s government, having forced a 10 per cent tuition cut on colleges and universities, has deprived Ontario institutions of $450 million this year alone.) But interest from international students has added another $1.5 billion to post-secondary coffers over that same timeframe, so the impact of the cuts has largely been mitigated, according to Phil Glennie, director of marketing and communications at Academica Group, a private educational-research consultancy based in London.

“It’s a major reason why our institutions aren’t hurting so much,” Glennie told the Canadian University Boards Association (CUBA) at its annual conference in Kingston last week.

That’s particularly evident, for example, at Cape Breton University, in Nova Scotia. That school saw its domestic enrolment decline last year. However, thanks to an explosion in interest from international students, it saw an overall increase of 44 per cent in its student body.

This isn’t just a small-school phenomenon. Even at the big players, such as the University of Toronto, McGill University, and the University of British Columbia, international students make up fully 25 per cent of student bodies, according to Glennie. Chinese nationals contribute hugely to those numbers. Surprisingly, Glennie says, U of T now gets more money from international students than it does from the government of Ontario.

The increase in international students is obviously crucial to the financial health of our post-secondary institutions in the near term. But the long-range consequences may be more troubling. Numerous experts at the CUBA conference said that the kinds of annual increases our post-secondary sector has been experiencing simply aren’t sustainable — that, sooner or later, China and other “student-exporting countries” will catch up with Ontario’s post-secondary infrastructure, and, eventually, the taps will begin to turn off. When that happens, and the revenues to our colleges and universities start to shrink, what then?

The international-student boom is also changing the way our post-secondary institutions see themselves. Ontario universities used to get 80 per cent of their funding from the provincial government. Now, it’s closer to 40 per cent.

“At 80 per cent funding, the university is a public good,” Glennie says. “At 40 per cent, now you’re in the marketplace, subject to market forces, which will tell you what you need to do.” And that could be a very different mission.

“This isn’t to blame governments,” Glennie stresses. “But we’ll reach a point where this simply can’t continue.”

So far, the vast majority of Ontarians haven’t joined the chorus of Trump supporters who demonize foreigners for domestic problems. But if the political attitudes of the south eventually make their way north, how long will it be before Ontarians start to ask whether the presence of so many international students is crowding out home-grown students? (For the record, experts say that they don’t, that the province has a funding formula for domestic students, and that every qualified student is guaranteed a spot at an Ontario university.)

Relying on international students may have other potential consequences. Canadian foreign-policy controversies sometimes have repercussions for Ontario’s colleges and universities. For example, when Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland was trading angry barbs and tweets with her counterparts in Saudi Arabia over that country’s human-rights record, the Saudis threatened to withdraw all their students from Canadian colleges and universities. Glennie says that threat was “later discreetly walked back, but when it happened, university officials were freaking out big time.”

No one has put an exact price tag on what that would have cost our institutions, but at least tens of millions of dollars seems a reasonable guess.

International students contribute so much to Ontario beyond the dollars they bring. (And, remember: because provincial taxpayers aren’t subsidizing these students’ tuition fees, they’re paying at least twice the tuition rates of home-grown students.) In Thunder Bay, for example, agriculture students from Brazil have enrolled at Lakehead University. They’ve not only brought their money; they’ve also established a Brazilian community at the lakehead, complete with a new Brazilian restaurant in town.

It’s all part of the double-edged sword that international students represent in Ontario and beyond.

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