Yesterday, we looked at one of the big mismatches in Canadian international education; namely, that big-names schools simply don’t have the financial incentive to take many more international students than they do already. Today, we’ll look at another pervasive mismatch: the one between program demand and program capacity.
Bluntly, international students tend to be less interested than domestic ones in programs like philosophy, women’s studies, fine arts, education, social work, etc. What they’re really interested in learning about is business, science and engineering/technology. It’s a cultural thing; most of our international students come from countries which view higher education in a fairly pragmatic light. If we had more students from America and Western Europe, it might be different, but we don’t and it isn’t; our customers want science, engineering and business.
Most schools offering undergraduate programs to international students would prefer to have them take business courses than science or engineering, simply on grounds of cost. The average international student fee doesn’t cover the cost of an undergraduate engineering degree, so it’s actually a financial burden to let them into that field (though of course international students may bring some other benefits which make it worthwhile). But what happens when the business courses fill up, or when an institution hits capacity in science or engineering?
One of the hot memes in campus international offices these days is the need to “spread the international student experience around,” by which people mean that they would like to get more students into faculties other than business, science and engineering. Usually, it’s clothed in language about making sure domestic students get the benefit of contact with these exotic foreigners (a lingering relic of the days when the argument for international students emphasized how they were here for our benefit, rather than vice-versa). Rhetoric aside, though, an increasing number of schools have a substantive problem: they genuinely can’t accommodate more international students in the fields which are in demand. And their solution, apparently, is to try to shift demand.
This Canute-like response is doomed to fail. Success in international education depends on meeting and satisfying demand, not on trying to divert it into areas to suit our own preferences. If we’re going to be an international education powerhouse, meeting demand is something we need to learn how to do.
Bottom line: doubling international enrolment means vastly expanding programs in business and to a lesser degree science, even as other parts of the university shrink. No one says this out loud, because in our ultra-collegial universities, the political implications of such a policy change are brutal. But if we’re serious about doubling international enrolment, we need to face up to this imperative and plan accordingly.