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Almost One in Five BC University Students Now International

Critics fear high fees these students pay mask gaps in provincial funding.

Andrew MacLeod 21 Oct

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria and the author of A Better Place on Earth: The Search for Fairness in Super Unequal British Columbia (Harbour Publishing, 2015). Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

Nearly one in five people attending a university in British Columbia is now an international student, the highest proportion in Canada, according to figures Statistics Canada released this week.

While the provincial government is working hard to boost the number of international students in the province, others worry the high fees institutions charge students who come from outside Canada is masking a gap in provincial funding.

“By and large, this is a financial strategy for universities to boost income,” said Michael Conlon, the executive director of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of B.C.

The added diversity is very welcome and benefits everyone, he said, but he warned the new revenue “is masking some of the funding cuts the B.C. government has made ... In a way it lets the B.C. government off the hook for some of the under-funding of our institutions.”

Across Canada the number of international students at universities nearly doubled between 2004 and 2014, says the study International students in Canadian Universities, 2004/2005 to 2013/2014. During the period covered in the study, the number of international students grew by 88 per cent while the number of Canadian students grew by 22 per cent.

In B.C., 18 per cent of the people studying at universities are now international students, more than anywhere else in Canada.

The growth is embraced and encouraged by the provincial government, which in 2012 announced a goal of growing the number of international students in the province by 50 per cent over four years.

Advanced Education Minister Andrew Wilkinson was unavailable for an interview, but in an emailed statement said, “The Statistics Canada study confirms that B.C. is one of the most popular study destinations for international students in Canada.”

The number of international students holding study permits in B.C. is up 44 per cent since 2010 and the province is on track to meet its goal for growing the number, he said.

In total there were 130,053 in 2015, including roughly 45,130 in public post-secondary, 67,965 in private post-secondary and 16,958 in elementary and secondary, a ministry spokesperson said.

“International students bring social, economic and cultural benefits to communities and institutions in B.C.,” Wilkinson said. “In 2014, international students in B.C. spent close to $2.6 billion on tuition, accommodation and living expenses, arts, culture and recreation. This supported almost 27,500 jobs and created a positive economic effect on communities throughout our province.”

At the post-secondary level, the arrangement is lucrative for schools and the province, but expensive for students and their families.

This school year, international students in B.C. are paying an average of $21,486, which is nearly four times the average fee of $5,534 in B.C. for Canadian students. Both figures are slightly below the national averages.

Across Canada, fees for international students are rising by 5.6 per cent this year, a fee hike that comes on top of a 6.5 per cent increase last year and 5.3 per cent the year before that. That’s significantly faster than the rate of inflation or the increase in fees for Canadian students.

“The sad reality for international students as compared to domestic students is their fees can be incredibly high,” said Bilan Arte, the chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students. “The trend is troubling and problematic from coast to coast.”

International students add a lot to life on Canadian campuses and it is unfair to use them to make up for a lack of public funding, she said.

The CFS is planning a day of action on Nov. 2 that will include events in Victoria and Vancouver calling for free education, including for international students, Arte said. She noted that Germany now offers free tuition for all students, including ones who come from other countries.

Governments in Canada need to prioritize funding for post-secondary education and make it available for all, she said.

The perception that international students all come from rich families and can easily afford to pay high fees is incorrect, said Sofía Descalzi, the president of the Grenfell Campus of Memorial University in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“A lot of international students struggle with poverty and lack of resources because of those differential fees,” said

In the fourth year of a psychology degree, Descalzi came to Canada from Ecuador, where she says post-secondary education is expensive and low quality. Studying in Canada has however meant sacrifices both for her family and for herself, she said.

“I use the food bank every month,” Descalzi said, adding that more than half the users of the campus food bank are international students. “We don’t have money to do our groceries because we have to give it all on differential fees the university demands from us.”

That international students are more likely than others to require help to have enough to eat is a common story from the 80 schools in the CFS that run campus food banks, Arte said. “It’s quite inhumane when you think about it.”

Descalzi said the high fees leave international students feeling exploited. “We definitely think they are treating us as cash cows.”

In British Columbia, funding for post-secondary education has been getting worse, said Conlon. He points out the university system in the province absorbed $50 million in cuts in 2013 and that funding has failed to keep up with inflation.

Institutions have turned to recruiting international students to make up the gap, but it’s a funding strategy likely to turn out to be unstable, he said.

With the current low Canadian dollar, the June Brexit vote and a sometimes disturbing United States election underway, Canada may be a popular choice for students for awhile yet, but that could change quickly, he said.

In 2007, for example, The Tyee’s Crawford Kilian wrote about fears that a rising Canadian dollar would lead international students to stay home or choose other destinations.

Conlon said, “We need sustainable long-term public funding.”  [Tyee]

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