Campaigns to attract foreign students and their money to Canadian campuses are increasingly assertive.
Even though Higher Education Minister Andrew Wilkinson proudly says B.C. already has a third of this country’s 330,000 foreign students, efforts are escalating to bring in more, especially to Metro Vancouver.
The city’s universities and colleges are paying millions of dollars to agents around the world to sign up student recruits for their programs. Developers like Toby Chu are planning 50-storey towers in Surrey to house more foreign students.
University officials are excited that, with the election of immigration-wary Donald Trump as U.S. president, foreign-student interest in Canada is soaring, even while Canada already has three times as many foreign students per capita as the U.S.
With foreign students bringing an estimated $8 billion a year into the Canadian economy, many officials applaud the way they spend on retail goods and rent, create teaching jobs, add to campus “diversity” and offset declining government education budgets.
Meanwhile, most scholars who harbour critical thoughts about how the foreign-student population has risen 25 per cent in the past three years are keeping quiet. They worry about threatening higher education’s golden calf, getting labelled “xenophobic” or being ostracized by colleagues whose jobs rely on foreign students.
Still, a few B.C. professors are adding their voices to concerns increasingly articulated by some leading experts on higher education, such as the University of Toronto’s Jane Knight and Boston University’s Philip Altbach.
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Although unheeded by politicians, Knight and Altbach say Western foreign-student programs have lost their humanitarian ideals, grown into a giant business and now largely draw second-tier students, many of whom struggle with new languages.
Kwantlen Polytechnic University political science professor Shinder Purewal and Patrick Feeney, a B.C.-based education professor now at Chiang Mai University in Thailand, add to such warnings about the hidden costs of Canada’s foreign student policy.
While both scholars support foreign student programs, they fear they’ve mushroomed out of control. Canadians, the scholars say, need to be aware of the disguised burden on taxpayers. Purewal and Feeney also say academic standards are declining in many classrooms.
Working independently, Purewal and Feeney reveal there have been significant repercussions as the ratio of foreign students at B.C.’s two leading universities, UBC and SFU, has grown to one in four, with by far the largest cohort from Mainland China.
Even though the portion of foreign students at suburban Vancouver’s Kwantlen Polytechnic University is one in eight (almost half the foreign students are South Asian), internal documents show that Kwantlen recently paid more than $300,000 to student-recruiting agents in India.
To further illustrate how massive the industry has become, Purewal said Metro Vancouver is home to more than 150 private colleges and universities that cater almost exclusively to foreign students. He calls them “drive-thru institutions, basically two-room colleges.”
What are the hidden financial costs of Canada’s foreign-student policies?
Purewal, who is also a registered immigration consultant, says Canadians are not aware that the more than 300,000 foreign students in the country at any one time receive provincial taxpayer-funded health care.
The foreign students — as well as their spouses and children — have their doctor and hospital visits paid for by Canadian taxpayers, even though they have not contributed to the universal health care program.
With B.C. home to 110,000 foreign students, and the average resident using up almost $6,000 a year in medical expenses, Purewal calculated “the cost could be up $635 million” to the province’s health care system, not including spouses and children (who are also allowed free public-school educations).
“While the post-secondary institutions earn more tuition money, the Canadian taxpayers foot the bill for their health costs,” said Purewal, who has served as a citizenship court judge, where he’s seen how Canadian policy also favours foreign students as future immigrants.
Many foreign students and especially their spouses also seize on the option to work while in Canada, often full time, says Purewal, echoing a new trend discovered by Vancouver immigration lawyer Richard Kurland.
In many cases, Purewal believes, Canadian bosses prefer to hire foreign students or their spouses. “You can exploit them to bone. They are not going to talk about labour standards. They can’t complain. Employers are happy with this system.”
What’s happening in higher education itself?
Purewal and Feeney are skeptical about the mantra from administrators and politicians that foreign students do not take the seats of domestic students.
The two academics maintain that, since government funding for higher education is declining, the money available to create seats for domestic students is also, in effect, declining. Domestic student enrolment in classrooms is capped.
Former UBC president Stephen Toope is among those who have said B.C. government funding for university students has been cut almost in half from its high in the 1970s, when it covered 70 per cent of per capita costs.
Purewal says the competition between domestic and foreign students becomes particularly keen in winning coveted spots in masters or PhD programs, which are small, with varied selection criteria.
Purewal also maintains universities are not asking most foreign students in Canada, who typically pay anywhere from $12,000 to $18,000 a year in fees, to pay their own way in full.
Their fees do not finance infrastructure, he said. If foreign students had to completely make up for the taxpayer money that has gone into constructing UBC, SFU or Kwantlen, Purewal estimated their fees would have to double or triple.
The quality of education is also declining in many university and college classrooms, says Feeney.
Since foreign students make up significant proportions of some Canadian classes and many struggle with English or French, Feeney has witnessed how both domestic students and foreign students are being shortchanged, especially those in the humanities and social sciences.
“How is that someone who has only rudimentary conversational English should now miraculously be expected to read, write about and speak substantially to scholarly texts? The answer is that many simply cannot,” says Feeney, who has taught at Thompson Rivers University and SFU and noted the lack of institutional support for foreign students.
“Predictably, seminars become stilted. Canadian students — who in my experience are almost preternaturally tolerant — eventually become disheartened and bored, if not overtly resentful. Ultimately everyone suffers, not least the foreign students themselves, for who wants to be thrust into a situation for which one is unprepared?”
With some professors “adjusting” their admissions requirements and grading so as not to scare away foreign students and their fees, Feeney adds that some Canadian domestic students are increasingly realizing some of their degrees may be losing their market value.
Are Canadian politicians and higher-education administrators serving the public with their foreign student policies? In their speeches they say only positive things about the economic and multicultural benefits of the rising phenomenon.
But a small group of scholars is wanting the public to consider reform — for the sake of both domestic and foreign students themselves.