Canadian universities bet on international students, but global shifts present risks

By Chuck Chiang, The Canadian Press

When the University of British Columbia announced the launch of Vantage College in 2013, the school said it envisioned the program for fee-paying international students would have enrolment of 1,000 by August 2016.

The program would target first-year students who otherwise failed to meet UBC’s English requirements, providing them with extra language lessons in addition to their degree courses.

It would house the students — whose fees are now about $60,000 per year — in a $127 million facility designed by world-renowned architecture firm Perkins&Will, some of its dorm rooms featuring sweeping ocean views.

However, Vantage’s enrolment is currently 172 students, having declined every year since reaching 498 in 2018-2019.

The struggles of Vantage College reflect the unpredictable nature of the lucrative international education sector, as Canadian universities find themselves beholden to geopolitical and economic shifts.

There have been massive changes in the sector, with study permits for Chinese students in Canada plunging 40 per cent since 2018. Permits for students from India — where English is far more widely spoken — have meanwhile doubled.

UBC spokesman Matthew Ramsey said in a written statement that “work is underway” to assess the Vantage model.

He said the enrolment shortfalls “come as (international) students are increasingly entering faculties directly and using faculty-specific programming to enhance their English-language skills.”

The federal government said that in 2022  international students contributed more than $22 billion to the Canadian economy, greater than the contribution of auto parts or lumber exports.

In British Columbia, statistics from the province’s Council for International Education showed the sector generated $330 million in government revenue in 2019, creating more than 53,000 jobs.

“It’s a big sector,” said BCCIE executive director Randall Martin, noting the industry covers everything from K-12 education and two-year transfer colleges to language schools and degrees at large universities.

Martin said international students have played an integral role in “keeping the light on” for Canadian universities in rural and remote areas, allowing schools to offer mandated courses they would otherwise struggle to provide.

“In many ways, the sector is a real success. It’s over $7 billion coming into the provincial economy because of international education, and that includes tuition, housing, accommodations, meals … and, yes, I think it’s fair to say that the international student numbers will follow geopolitical trends.”

The industry in Canada — as in most popular international education destinations — largely relies on the high number of students from two countries: China and India.

Statistics Canada data show that students from the world’s two most populous countries accounted for more than half of the almost 550,000 study permits issued by Canada in 2022.

But permits given to Chinese students have fallen from 85,000 in 2018 to just short of 52,000 last year.

A similar slide has been reported by the BCCIE, with the number of Chinese international students in B.C. down from 50,000 in 2015 to 29,670 last year.

Martin said the decline began after the legal saga of Meng Wanzhou, the Chinese tech executive who was arrested in late 2018 and held in Vancouver until 2021, triggering a deep decline in China-Canada relations.

“I think Canada was portrayed as not a safe place for Chinese students in the Chinese media, and our numbers did go down a bit,” he said.

Karin Fischer, who writes a weekly international education newsletter called Latitudes, said while pandemic travel restrictions made the biggest dent in student numbers, the number of Chinese students in the West has not rebounded in the way numbers from India or elsewhere have.

Fischer said higher travel costs and a reluctance among Chinese families to endure lengthy separations from children post-pandemic are contributing factors. But deteriorating economic conditions in China — reducing both students’ ability to pay and find work after graduating — may be a key reason their numbers haven’t recovered.

“Going to study in another country is an enormous investment, even for a middle-class Chinese or Indian family,” Fischer said. “What is the expectation that they have about earning that degree? What is their return on investment?

“I wonder if some (Chinese) families are thinking, ‘God, should we spend all this money up front if we’re worried about (whether) our child is going to graduate and not have a job to come back to?'”

Tuition for Vantage College in 2023-2024 costs around $60,000, while other international students at UBC pay from around $42,000 to $58,000.

Domestic students’ tuitions range from around $6,000 to $9,000 a year.

The drop in Chinese students, Fischer said, tends to disproportionately affect Vantage College and other similar “pathway” programs for students needing English-language support.

The University of South Florida shuttered a similar pathway centre for international students recently because it wasn’t profitable, Fischer said.

“If you don’t have the volume of students, they’re really challenging,” she said of pathway programs. “And they worked particularly well for Chinese students because they had that combination of students who needed the extra language but who were generally academically prepared — and who could afford to pay for that.”

Indian international students tend to be proficient in English and do not require pathway programs, Fischer said.

Ramsey said UBC originally built the 1,049-room Orchard Commons complex to house both Vantage’s students and domestic first-year students, boosting integration and helping “create a positive experience for all students.”

A recent visit to the complex’s cafeteria at lunch time showed little sign of students in need of language support, with fluent English the language of choice.

Ayumi Yamamoto, a Japanese exchange student who started attending Vantage in September, said she does not live at Orchard Commons but at nearby Fairview Crescent.

She described Orchard Commons as “not crowded” and offering ample space for her and other Vantage students.

“They always have empty seats, at least one of them,” Yamamoto said.

While the number of Chinese students have fallen across Canada, overall international student numbers are on the rise, largely due to students from India.

Statistics Canada showed study permits issued to Indian students rose from 107,000 in 2018 to almost 226,000 last year. In B.C., their number went from 12,040 in 2015 to almost 75,000 in 2022.

Martin said much of that growth stemmed from immigration policy changes that allowed students seeking a two-year diploma to stay in Canada and work here for three years, opening the door to permanent residency.

But recent strains between Canada and India over the killing of a Sikh separatist leader in Surrey, B.C., have created more uncertainty. After Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last month said New Delhi may have been involved in the killing, India issued a travel advisory that warned of violence against Indian nationals and students in Canada.

Fischer said there is a precedent in Canada’s dispute with Saudi Arabia over the kingdom’s arrest of human rights activists in 2018. Permits issued to Saudi students fell from 5,080 in 2017 to 1,185 in 2019.

But Fischer said Saudi Arabia had been paying for students to go abroad and pulled their scholarships during the dispute.

“A place like India, it is almost entirely students paying their own way,” she said. “So it’s hard to know (of India’s impact) because it’s individual students making all sorts of individual choices.”

Canadian universities have been looking to diversify their international student populations beyond India and China.

Graham Barber, assistant director of international relations at Universities Canada, a national advocacy body for universities, said recent outreach has focused on countries such as Mexico, Nigeria, Vietnam, Brazil and the Philippines — places with growing middle-class populations and young people willing and able to travel to study.

“We (have) world-class institutions that are really, really good at this,” Barber said about finding new markets. “One of the great things about being in Canada is there’s such a diverse population here. They really have those people-to-people ties to be able to pivot quickly to different areas and to work with new partnerships.”

UBC’s Ramsey said while the Vantage model may be under assessment, its supportive approach to international students isn’t going away.

“It’s too soon to say what form that may take in the years ahead,” he said. “What we can say is there is a need for this type of instructional model on our campuses now and moving forward.”

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