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From the admin chair

Part two: What international students mean to Canadian universities

The increasing importance of international students to Canadian universities.


In my last column (in the April issue) I discussed the increasing importance of international students to Canadian universities. I will now look at some of the implications for university planning.

This requires some assumptions. The first is that the progressive internationalization of Canadian universities will continue, for several reasons. Increasing wealth in Asia and elsewhere means that supply of international students is growing rapidly. Though the term globalization has become a cliché, there is an underlying reality that means both students and universities have reasons to look beyond their national borders. Finally, Canadian universities are lagging behind their Australian and U.K. counterparts. In other words, there is room for growth.

The second assumption is that there is some risk to manage. Economic cycles or government policies could lead to short-term fluctuations in student numbers. Also, when institutions become too dependent on international tuition revenue they may face financial instability when those short-term fluctuations destabilize core budgets. There is also an element of “collective risk”: controls over joint degrees or other partnerships with offshore institutions vary from province to province.  A bad experience with one institution can damage the reputation of others. This was brought home to me a few years ago when a visiting delegation of senior Chinese university officials complained of false promises made by “Canadians.” The issue turned out to revolve around a small private college, but all Canadian institutions suffered, at least potentially.

Finally, there is a risk to the institution and to the students if the university does not recognize that many international students confront particular challenges. Most undergraduate students are only 17 or 18 years old when they take the scary step of committing themselves to four years overseas. Cultural issues, homesickness and pressure to succeed all intrude upon their ability to make the most of their experience.  Also, in spite of entrance requirements and instruments like TOEFL, language often adds to difficulties for students from many countries.

These assumptions point to a basic fact for Canadian universities: they need to think of international students from a long-run perspective. This means making a real investment to ensure that, whatever the short-term fluctuations, the institution is structured to attract and graduate larger numbers of strong international students.

Investment means several things. First, budgeting around international undergraduate enrolment has to be treated more deliberately. This is a matter of social responsibility and it is also good business: successful students are the best advertisement of all. Recruitment teams will need to have adequate resources to do the job. Websites need to be made meaningful for the international student (ask students what they need). At budget time, incentives need to be given to programs that attract international students, while considering the overall balance of international and domestic undergraduates. Scholarships that reward excellence help create opportunities for deserving overseas students and reduce the risk that “international” always means “rich.”

Most of all, universities need to invest in the students’ success after they arrive on campus. Most universities have created some level of support, and international centres and special orientation programs are common. However, these programs vary considerably in length, resources and substance. All too often, support for international students seems to exist outside the main academic mission of the institutions.

There are exceptions. Thompson Rivers, a relatively small university, has a range of materials and programs that seek to integrate thinking about the international student into its central academic mission. The fact that this is done, in part, out of demographic necessity only reinforces the argument that social responsibility and self-interest can work together.

If successful undergraduate internationalization is to continue, the exceptions have to become the rule. High tuition fees for international students provide the room to enhance programming and support without drawing from government or domestic tuition. Continued growth in the international arena is important for Canada and for the students who benefit from our strong university system. It is an investment worth making.

Doug Owram is deputy chancellor and principal of UBC Okanagan. He is also a Canadian historian and member of the Royal Society of Canada.

Doug Owram is deputy vice-chancellor of UBC Okanagan and a Canadian historian.
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  1. S. Lawrence / October 19, 2010 at 19:15

    I really appreciate this two piece discussion on the implications of international students to Canadian universities and global competition to recruit international students for the many benefits they bring with them. As a student of university policies on international education, I wonder if there should be a stronger distinction between the value of international students to undergraduate education programs compared to graduate-level programs.

    Graduate students are highly subsidized by governments and universities where international undergraduates pay significantly higher fees (which should cover most of the costs of their programs). Yet in the field of research, the benefits of hosting international graduate students can be argued to be equally high. It seems a contentious issue and I wonder if universities are strategizing to recruit international graduates to the same degree as international undergrads, or if they should.