Over the past summer, we at HESA have been thinking a lot about international enrolment, and speaking to international student recruiters and advisers, and international students themselves. You’ll get to see some of the results of this in the coming months as we publish some of this research, but I wanted to share a couple of thoughts with you all now, while the federal task force report is still fresh in everyone’s minds.
My main thought is this: we’re not ready to double international student enrolment in this country. Not by a long shot. Institutions don’t have the capacity, and provincial governments aren’t prepared to create the right incentives to make them do so.
Let’s take an example. Institution A is a big, research-intensive school in the GTA while institution B is a regional school in northern Ontario. They both get about $12,500 per student per year in tuition and government grants for a domestic student, and both can charge about $16,000 per year in tuition for international undergraduates (net of stuff like health insurance and other fees that haven’t much to do with running a university).
For the regional school, the decision to go after foreign students is a no-brainer. These schools have declining enrolment and capacity to spare. Any dollar they get on the margin is a dollar they wouldn’t get otherwise – as long as they cover their recruitment costs, any income they earn from international students is a net gain.
But for Institution A, which doesn’t have any problems picking up domestic students, it’s a different equation. They have a choice between an international student and a domestic student, and so the decision will simply come down to: “is the margin between revenue from an international student and a domestic student large enough to cover all the costs associated with recruitment”? You lose ten to fifteen percent of the first year’s tuition right off the top in agent’s fees – that wipes out half your margin in year one right there. Then there’s paying for the international admission staff, the international recruitment staff (and presidents and VPs) and all their trips overseas. Throw in international student advisors and the cost of any head-taxes that a deeply confused provincial government may have thrown at you in the last budget, and it’s not clear why you’d go for foreign recruitment.
And there’s the central problem. Big research-intensive universities – the ones great foreign students would probably most like to attend (prestige matters in this market, folks) – have no financial incentive to accept them. Any plan to double enrolment that doesn’t address that simple issue isn’t going to work.