Canadian schools try to lure foreign students— and dollars
SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGERNovember251996
SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER
Canadian schools try to lure foreign students— and dollars
The moment captured the proud traditions of a 169-year-old university. Simon Low-Nang, wearing his faculty’s traditional orange-lined hood and gown, joined more than 75 fellow graduates of the University of Toronto in a formal procession to centre stage. There, university officials shook LowNang’s hand and presented him with a hard-earned master’s degree in business administration. A typical graduation at one of Canada’s most venerable institutions? Well, not quite. For the first time in its history, in late November the University of Toronto was holding a graduation ceremony outside Canada—halfway around the world, in the ballroom of the posh Regal Hotel in Hong Kong. “It’s a lot better to have it here,” says Low-Nang who returned to Hong Kong to start a new job as soon as classes ended in August.
“All the Chinese students would have missed convocation.” The ceremony—sponsored by a wealthy local alumnus—was a pilot project for the university’s Hong Kong students, its largest international contingent. “If it works, we will do it in other regions of the world where numbers warrant,” says Barbara Dick, assistant director of alumni affairs. “It’s an effort to reach out to our international students.”
Toronto is not the only Canadian university refitting its venerable traditions to accommodate the special needs of students from abroad, most of whom pay tuition fees several times higher than those of domestic students. In what is becoming a highly compet-
itive international drive to boost enrolments of foreign students— especially those from wealthy nations in the Pacific Rim—many institutions have decided to make it easier to get a made-inCanada degree. Across the country, administrators are sending full-time recruiters to Hong Kong, Korea, Malaysia and a host of other countries. And back on campus, they are setting up fax lines and e-mail addresses to make registration easier, providing supplementary English-as-a-second-language courses, and seminars and social activities at campus international centres. “They were a real help from the moment I was accepted,” says Gacheru Maina, 24, who came from Nairobi to study politics and economics at the University of Manitoba. “They met me at the airport, arranged for a host family to help me adapt and had a buddy program.”
But despite such efforts, many argue that there is room for improvement. “It’s a competitive world out there and Canada is coming a bit late to this game,” says Donald Wehrung, co-ordinator of the University of British Columbia’s international student recruitment initiative. In fact, UBC is aggressively working to increase the number of international students at the undergraduate level—there are now 650—from 2.6 per cent to 15 per cent over the next decade. As part of that drive, administrators have begun to offer strong monetary incentives to faculties that might otherwise be reluctant to increase international numbers: deans of both undergraduate and professional faculties can now keep up to 70 per cent of foreign tuition fees for use within their own departments. It is a move that has some campus observers concerned. Says political science professor Philip Resnick: “The reality is that we are going after rich foreign
students who can pay princely sums.”
However controversial, recent efforts to increase the number of foreign students represent an about-face for most universities. Only 33,000 of the 1.5 million university students worldwide who studied abroad in 1994 chose Canada as their destination—barely two per cent of the total. And while Canada’s numbers have been almost flat over the past decade, such competitors as Britain and Australia have more than tripled their foreign enrolments. Over the same period, the United States, where more than one-quarter of all international students attend university, increased its numbers by 30 per cent. “Australia has offices in all of the large Asian cities and invites students to visit its campuses,” notes James Fox, president of the Canadian Bureau for International Education. “Here, we’ve only begun to market. Nobody has been minding the store.”
That, say many, represents a missed opportunity for luring foreign dollars into Canadian coffers. According to Fox’s organization, even Canada’s relatively small share of foreign students already contribute more than $1 billion to the economy. “They buy bus tickets, they get their hair cut, they buy food, they pay rent and their parents come to visit as tourists,” says William Saywell, president of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, which operates seven Canadian Education Centres promoting the nation’s high schools, colleges and universities throughout the Far East. Perhaps even more important is what Saywell calls the “long-term strategic value” of luring foreign students to Canadian campuses. “Most of these students go back into their society as potential leaders,” he notes.
‘They know you, your brand names, your products. They like you, think well of the country—and they are our trading partners.”
And at a time when most Canadian universities are weathering deep government cuts, there are undeniable advantages to recruitment abroad. The average foreign undergraduate student in Canada pays roughly $14,000 a year—generally less than the rate charged to foreign students in the United >¡
States and other countries, but about five f times what domestic students pay to study in ÜÎ Canada. ‘We have moved, as a country, from $ seeing international students as altruism,” ” says Fox, “to seeing them in altruistic and commercial terms.” Says Sheldon Levy, vicepresident of institutional affairs at York University in Toronto: To be quite honest, we plan to do OK on them. With grants reduced so dramatically, you can’t ignore any opportunities.” Argues Levy, whose university is actively recruiting abroad, “Your only other answer is cut, cut, cut.”
Still, even many of those who have been working hard to increase the foreign presence on campus insist that the opportunities to profit from the experience are easily exaggerated. “I’m not saying we’re purer than pure,” says Denis Leclaire, director of international activities at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. “But no Canadian university is going to get rich off the backs of international students.” Recruitment, marketing and the high level of service provided to international students, he points out, are costly. “It’s not a money loser,” observes Leclaire. “But it isn’t a huge moneymaker either.” And Leclaire cautions that Saint Mary’s has had to work hard to ensure a smooth transition for students who are new to Canada— and for the Canadians who study with them. There is potential for racism,” says Leclaire. “You also get students from some cultures who are not as gender-sensitive as you may want them to be.” Still,
despite such potential problems, which he insists are surmountable, Leclaire remains a firm advocate of luring more students from abroad. “A mix of people from different countries,” says Leclaire, “lends a richness to the classroom.” Indeed, many argue that the greatest benefits extend far beyond material considerations, to cultural and intellectual ones. “At UBC, we had students from all over the world—Russians, Iranians,” recalls Beth James, a graduate student in political science at the University of Western Ontario, which like many schools suffered a decline in international enrolment over the past decade. “It’s important to have that mix so you can have a global perspective,” argues James, who attended UBC as an undergrad in the early 1990s. “In class discussions here, everybody agrees with each other—they come from the same headspace, the same background.”
And along with the exchange of ideas is the chance to forge critical professional connections. “If I work alongside somebody from Hong Kong, Japan or Europe, the technical details are the same,” says Jason Soo, an engineering science major in his final year at Simon Fraser University. “But in terms of networking, it makes an incredible impact because so many of the international students eventually get employment in their native country. They are going to remember you and you will have a network of friends working around the world when you are looking for work. That is invaluable.” Certainly many international students see Canada as an appealing country. Despite the hefty fees, Canada, they say, remains a deal. “At $7,000, I am paying three times more than a Canadian student,” says Yoriko Suzuki, a 22-year-old psychology major at Simon Fraser. “But that is not much more than I would pay in Japan.” Others insist that the quality education available in Canada is worth the cost in any case. James Chen and his sister, Linda, both first-year science students at Saint Mary’s, decided to study in Canada after they spoke to one of the university’s recruiters in their home city of Taipei. “The education is better here than in Taiwan,” offers Linda. “There you have to memorize—here you have to think.” And in a highly competitive world, attracting students like Chen to Canadian universities has become more than just an academic proposition. □
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