The recent federal report, International Education, a Key Driver of Canada’s Future Prosperity, makes a number of sweeping suggestions on how Canada should “internationalize” its approach to education. A key recommendation the media has emphasized is that Canada focus on dramatically increasing the number of international students in our universities and colleges, as well as the number we send to other countries.

Nova Scotia Students believe that while the report suggests some important reforms, its greatest value is in drawing attention to international students’ increasing importance for the post-secondary system and the Canadian economy at large. In this view, the report and its media coverage warrant a reality check.

Claim:

The report frames the need for international students as a matter of increasing Canada’s “market share of the best and brightest international students and researchers,” and “opportunities for Canadians to…be more fully engaged in…the diversity and multicultural nature of the world.”

Reality Check:

The drive to attract and export international students in Canada, as in many other countries, is tied to the need for increased funding to universities and colleges. This carries the risk that post-secondary institutions will prioritize the amounts they can charge international students in tuition and fees, instead of the quality of their educational programs. The differential tuition that international students pay is meant to fund the full cost of their education, covering the portion paid by Canadian taxpayers for domestic students. As it stands, however, each international student brings their Nova Scotia institution as much as 50% more in revenues than a domestic student. This is because public money for universities is allocated by the province according to an enrolment-driven funding formula that does not fully differentiate between international and domestic students, such that international student’s differential tuition fees are additional to public funds.

It’s time for our institutions and the government to come clean on how much Nova Scotia universities depend on international enrolment to stay financially afloat.

Claim:

The report argues that “the education sector is a future economic growth sector that brings economic benefits to every region of Canada from coast to coast to coast and to communities large and small.” Later on, the authors note that, “…expenditure resulting from international students in 2010 was $8.0 billion, which translates to 86,570 jobs and $455 million in government tax revenue. In addition, there is tremendous scope for economic contributions from the direct export of Canadian education services abroad. Canadian schools, colleges, polytechnics and universities generate millions of dollars in tuition revenue from programs of study offered abroad.”

Reality Check:

The language of ‘a future economic growth sector’ and “contributions from the direct export” shifts our vision of post-secondary education from a public service to a monetized product for export, which is highly concerning. Post-secondary education in Canada is a public service and should remain so. Nova Scotia students oppose this ongoing trend towards international marketeering and the suggestion that any student of our system, regardless of where they come from, is primarily a customer purchasing a product instead of a pupil looking to learn.

If we truly want to create opportunities, and foster multiculturalism and diversity, as the report suggests, it is incumbent upon post-secondary institutions and governments to ensure we create an environment that is supportive of international students who face particular challenges, and fair to all. This is not merely a question of how many students come to Canada, but how effectively they are included when they are here.

Furthermore, the increasing dependence on international students is dangerous for institutions’ stability since international enrolments are more unstable, and for the public service mission of these public institutions as they become increasingly driven by ‘international market share’. If this is the government and institutions’ vision for post-secondary though, they should say so openly. What Nova Scotia really needs is a post-secondary system focused first-and-foremost on its public policy outcomes: most importantly excellence, affordability and accessibility.