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Speculative Diction

Crap detection and the higher ed news


Howard Rheingold, the longtime Internet commentator and UC Berkeley lecturer, uses the term “crap detection” to describe the process of determining whether online information is credible or not. What Rheingold calls “crap detection” is also known as information literacy, and in my case it was acquired partly through a degree in communication studies with an emphasis on analysing mainstream media coverage.

I thought of Rheingold’s ideas, and my own mass comms background, the other day when I came across an article by Douglas Todd from the Vancouver Sun titled “The pros and cons of foreign students.” This article is taking on what is currently a hot topic in Canadian higher education. The issue is only likely to heat up further in the coming years, given that Canadian universities have finally begun to vie for a bigger slice of the international student “market” in which countries like the UK, Australia and New Zealand have already established themselves as desirable destinations.

The first thing I noticed, which for me is always something worth pointing out, is the use of the term “foreign students” as opposed to “international students.” While the terms are used interchangeably, they each have different implications. While “international” is descriptive in terms of students’ national origins and/or citizenship, “foreign” suggests strangeness and unfamiliarity, or “other-ness.” There is other language alongside this, which depicts international students as a horde that will overrun Canadian universities – including “flood of foreign students”; “the river of foreign students”; and “this growing educational army.” The language often used to argue against allowing immigrants into a country is here used alongside the argument that “foreign” students are “crowding out” worthy Canadians.

Another, related thing that stands out about this article, but which isn’t entirely obvious unless you do a little bit of digging (i.e. spend five minutes with Google), is the use of particular voices for commentary. For example, it’s not clear why a political science professor without apparent specialization in higher education, Dr. Philip Resnick of UBC, was chosen for extensive commentary – rather than a professor who is an expert on the subject. Such experts do exist in Canada, and indeed within British Columbia where some of the “locals” in the University of British Columbia faculty of education include higher education scholars Donald Fisher and Amy Scott Metcalfe, both of whom have expert knowledge of higher education policy in the Canadian context.

Mr. Todd then discusses in his Vancouver Sun piece, the use of international student tuition to provide revenue for Canadian universities. The professor who is quoted “acknowledges he’s never researched [the] financial claim” that international student tuition covers all the costs of the students’ education – which it would have to do, if it were to be a source of revenue. But it’s simply not credible then to turn to research from the United States as a means of implying that international students could be costing Canadian taxpayers additional funds, rather than bringing in money for universities. If we don’t have the Canadian numbers on this, then extrapolating from research done in the United States is like comparing the proverbial apples to oranges.

If we check up on the scholar who produced this research (Harvard economist George Borjas), we find that its author generally takes an anti-immigration (and anti-international student) stance, which fits well enough with the fact that he “discovered foreign students have displaced local students, particularly white males, especially in graduate schools.” His research (PDF) is being quoted alongside Canada’s Centre for Immigration Policy Reform, which is a conservative anti-immigration think tank with “official spokespersons” who are members of the conservative and libertarian Fraser Institute.

The author also raises issue of language fluency, which “some local students say is harming the quality of classroom interactions”; he quotes studies that “find many international students are showing up in classes with poor skills in English,” though Dr. Resnick admits that “some [students] are surprisingly good.” One wonders why this would be a surprise given the number of “foreign” countries where English is spoken and/or taught in schools. A colleague who is a Mexican national and permanent resident of the UK commented that it might be a challenge even for those who speak English as a first language to pass the TOEFL or GRE, given the high level of fluency required to do well on those tests. In a recent University Affairs opinion piece (not cited by Mr. Todd) the same issue was addressed and provoked a heated but thoughtful debate about the linguistic readiness of EAL students, which I think shows that while there is substantial disagreement about how prepared the students are for academic success in Canada – it also demonstrates that we can do better than anecdotes and stereotypes in our coverage of this topic.

Lastly, the subtitle of the Vancouver Sun article mentions “pillaging” the best students from “poorer” countries, which would have been an interesting point of discussion, and it’s certainly been addressed by other authors in the recent past. However, even this was addressed in ways that invoked racial and class stereotypes, e.g. by calling the (Asian) students “richies” and quoting the author of a “popular novel” titled Crazy Rich Asians, while not addressing at all the critique of “brain drain” from other nations that have scarce human capital and may lack adequate educational infrastructure to train skilled professionals. There is plenty to discuss here but some of the most salient problems seem to have been avoided or ignored.

It’s a real shame to see this kind of superficial reporting on such an important topic, especially when stereotypes of race and class are being invoked, something that highlights what many students already face when they come to Canada from overseas. I believe that the recruitment of international students raises complex ethical issues that will need to be addressed in the coming years as Canadian universities try harder to fill enrollment gaps due to demographic changes. But these points will require debate that is equal to the nuances of the subject – something that certainly wasn’t being provided by the Vancouver Sun this week.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Douglas Todd / September 1, 2013 at 08:28

    I take issue with many issues cited by Ms. Fullick in her elegantly headlined commentary. But I’ll focus only now on one thing I found puzzling. Ms. Fullick’s column frequently disparages anything to do with conservative or right-wing positions, which makes me assume she is of the liberal-left, including when it comes to economic justice and egalitarianism. (It’s where I come from myself.) But, despite this, she focusses relentlessly on the issue of alleged stereotyping while totally ignoring that the vast majority of foreign students increasingly coming into Canada are, indeed, the “richies” from around the world, including the developing world. It’s a crude term, to be sure, but it’s accurate. I wish Ms. Fullick had addressed the justice issues inherent in this problem. She certainly took great delight in attempting to skewer me and Prof. Resnick, but mostly avoided the important issues.

  2. Jean Huguet / September 13, 2013 at 13:07

    @Douglas Todd: Labeling the other with attributes such as “conservative”, “right-wing” or “liberal-left” doesn’t make for a good argument. I wish that you had addressed the points that Ms. Fullick raises in her commentary.

    • Douglas Todd / September 24, 2013 at 16:17

      Which issues do you wish me to address specifically? I could start with the first criticism that Ms. Fullick raises, which is the term “foreign students.” Since Ms. Fullick focusses almost exclusively on the issue of labelling and stereotyping — as it seems you may also be doing — I’ll at least address this one. In actuality, “foreign student” is a more accurate term than “international student.” A Canadian who travels to Belgium to study is an “international student.” But that’s not the group we are talking about here. Thus — “foreign students.” It’s ludicrous to suggest this is an unfair term, stressing “otherness.”

  3. Douglas Todd / December 3, 2013 at 11:14

    For those interested in healthy dialogue, I wrote a second column about foreign/international students on Nov. 30, 2013:

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