There’s a very important question that institutions across the land will soon need to confront, namely: how many international students can a public institution accept before taxpayers and governments say “no more”?
It’s not an idle question. In Switzerland, serious concerns are being raised about foreign student numbers that are getting close to the 40% mark. In the US, where big flagship public universities have been adding international students in droves over the past few years, most feel reluctant to go beyond a threshold of about 20%; beyond that, they feel they would be courting controversy with their legislatures.
In Canada, we have a couple of institutions in the Atlantic, and a college in the GTA, where the percentage of students from abroad is hovering around the 30% mark. We’ve already had skirmishes around the desirability of foreign students (e.g. the Ontario Tories’ attack on Trillium Scholarships), even when those students are paying their own way (e.g. Dalhousie’s decision to sell 10 medical student spots to Saudi Arabia).
The “danger threshold” in Canada depends on local context. Universities in communities where youth demographics are falling off a cliff (e.g. Cape Breton) can almost certainly get away with more international students than can universities elsewhere – even 40% international enrolments probably wouldn’t cause many to blink in Sydney. But that’s not a hard-and-fast rule: if Lakehead or Brandon were to try something similar, one could imagine a stir about concentrating on international students at the expense of the local Aboriginal population.
The really tricky cases are in Vancouver and Toronto, the two cities to which most international students want to go, but also the two parts of the country where the youth population is still increasing (Calgary fits into the latter category as well). Schools there have no shortage of domestic students they could educate, so every time they admit a foreign student – even one who is being charged 100%+ of the cost of their education (true in every faculty outside engineering, basically) – it could be portrayed as taking a spot away from a domestic student.
How explosive an issue could this be? A few months ago, we asked students how they would feel if their school were to limit domestic enrolment in order to increase foreign student numbers, and compared that to how they felt about a $5000 tuition hike. Here are the results:
How Likely Would You Be To Protest In the Event of:
Not terrible, but not great either.
This isn’t a scenario most institutions face, of course. But as budget cutbacks mount, and institutions’ financial calculus tilts in favour of increasing the number of full-fee paying international students, the chances of a nativist backlash increases. Schools should be prepared for it.