Everyone, it sometimes seems, wants more international students. But is it possible to have too many international students? And if so, when? These days, it’s a delicate question: but where public dollars are at stake, it’s a question worth asking.
There are three reasons why an institution might want to consider reining in the number of international students. They are:
- Losing money. There are many good reasons why one might want to spend public money on non-citizens, but there are also presumably limits, especially when dollars are scarce. The politics of international students are one thing if international students are seen to be subsidizing local ones; quite something else if the reverse is true.
- Crowding out. Public support for international students partially depends on available space. To the extent that international students are seen as taking places away from domestic students, their presence is controversial.
- Changing the quality of education. There are a couple of ways in which international students could legitimately be seen as lowering the quality of education. In North America, this is most likely to occur when new international students are brought in on top of existing numbers, but no new teaching resources are allocated, thus increasing class sizes. More controversial is where the nature of the education itself is seen to be degraded by the arrival or pursuit of international students. In North America this might be a lowering (or perceived lowering) of entrance standards; in Europe it often plays out as conflicts concerning offering programs in English rather than the local language.
How these factors affect institutional decision-making will differ from place to place, depending on a variety of other factors and political preferences.
Here’s an example: in the United States, most big state universities will tell you that they have an informal cap on international students of about 20% (in some places the limit is on all out-of-state enrolments). The University of California has a codified limit in its agreement with the state government, but in most places, it is just a rule of thumb based on what they think they can get away with in the state legislature.
But, isn’t that a red herring? With all that money being raked in from international students, surely it can be reinvested so that one extra international student spot can also lead to one extra domestic student spot, ensuring there is no loss of opportunity for domestic students. To which the answer is generally yes, but it’s trickier at the big flagships because a) each spot costs a lot more and it’s not clear international student tuition actually covers it and b) big American schools are much less eager than Canadian ones to grow because their prestige partially depends on restriction of opportunity. Thus, their inclination might in fact be to substitute a foreign student for a domestic one and that, for obvious reasons, causes friction.
There is an interesting debate on this now being played out in the Netherlands (often perceived as relatively liberal country concerning immigrants, but Geert Wilders and his movement had cast doubt on this), where internationalization in higher education is increasingly questioned. Boston College’s Hans De Wit gave a very good summary of issues here, but basically it comes down to a perception that international students are a) making universities more crowded/reducing institutional quality and b) reducing the extent of Dutch-language education in favour of English programming. I suspect the latter is probably a bigger deal, especially in a small country with a language not much spoken outside its borders. Switzerland had a similar debate four years ago, though there the debate was more directly about using public dollars to subsidise non-Swiss students, who made up a little over one-third of the total student body at the time (roughly 2.5x what they currently do in Canada).
Here in Canada, we seem pretty sanguine about the quality/over-crowding issue (we’ve been balancing the books in universities for years by overcrowding them), but the financing and crowding-out issues play out a little differently from place to place. Tuition from international students varies enormously across Canada. In most places, international student fees do not equal average costs and in some cases may barely cover marginal costs. From an institutional perspective, that’s often irrelevant; outside of Ontario and Nova Scotia any money institutions get from international students is gravy (albeit in Quebec’s case, highly regulated and often clawed-back gravy) because of the way government funding policies work. But from a public funding perspective it does matter. These students can easily be seen as benefitting from public subsidies, albeit not at quite as great a rate as local students. Where international students are clearly not in competition with local students – at Cape Breton University, say, or any other institution whose catchment area is going through a demographic bust – this is not a problem. But where there is a shortage of places (e.g the BC Lower Mainland), it’s easy to see how perceptions of subsidies and of crowding-out might turn into real hostility against greater international student numbers.
So, the short answer to the question ‘how many is too many’ is: it depends. But it’s foolish to think there is no maximum. And to the extent Canadian institutional budgets are based on assumptions of ever-increasing revenues from international students, that’s a fact that needs to be acknowledged much more clearly than it is at present.