Here’s a new one: the Canadian Federation of Students has decided, apparently, that charging international students higher tuition fees is “xenophobic”. No, really, they have. This is possibly the dumbest idea in Canadian higher education since the one about OSAP “profiting” from students. But as we’ve seen all too often in the past year or two, stupidity is no barrier to popularity where political ideas are concerned. So: let’s get down to debunking this.
The point that CFS – and maybe others, you never know who’s prepared to follow them down these policy ratholes – is presumably trying to highlight is that Canadian universities charge differential fees – one set for domestic students and another, higher, one for students from abroad. Their argument is that this differential is unfair to international students and that fees should be lowered so as to equal those of domestic students.
It’s not indefensible to suggest that domestic and international tuition fees should be identical. Lots of countries do it: Norway, Germany and Portugal to name but three and if I’m not mistaken, both Newfoundland and Manitoba have had such policies within living memory as well. But the idea that citizens and non-citizens pay different amounts for a publicly-funded service is not a radical, let alone a racist, one. A non-citizen of Toronto wishing to borrow from the Toronto Libraries is required to pay a fee for a library card, while a citizen does not. This is not xenophobic: it is a way of ensuring that services go in priority to people who pay taxes in that jurisdiction. If an American comes to Canada and gets sick, they are expected to pay for their treatment if they visit a doctor or admitted to hospital. This is not xenophobic either: the price is the same to all, it’s just that we have all pre-paid into a domestic health insurance fund but foreigners have not.
It’s the same in higher education. American public universities all charge one rate to students from in-state and another to those out-of-state. Not xenophobic: just prioritizing local taxpayers. In Ontario, universities are not allowed to use their tuition set-aside dollars – collected from all domestic tuition fees – to provide funding to out-of-province students. Irritating? Yes. Xenophobic? No.
International students are in the same position. Their parents have not paid into the system. Only a minority of them will stay here in Canada to pay into it themselves. So why on earth should they pay a similar amount to domestic students? And it’s not as if there’s massive profiteering going on: as I showed back here, in most of the country international fees are set below the average cost of attendance. So international students are in fact being subsidized; just not very much.
In any event, even if we were charging international students over the going rate, that wouldn’t be evidence of xenophobia. Perhaps it has escaped CFS’ notice, but there is not a single university in the country which is turning away undergraduate students. According to every dictionary I’ve been able to lay my hands on, xenophobia means irrational fear and hatred of foreigners; yet now CFS has discovered some odd variant in which the xenophobes are falling over each other to attract as many foreigners as possible.
My guess is that most people at CFS can distinguish between “xenophobia” and “differential fees”. What’s happened, though, is that part of the brain trust at head office simply decided to use an emotive word to try to stigmatize a policy with which their organization disagrees. That kind of approach sometimes works in politics: just think of the success Sarah Palin had when she invented the term “death panels” to describe end-of-life counselling under American federal health care legislation.
But effectiveness is not the be-all and end-all of politics. Sarah Palin is a cancerous wart on democracy. You’d kind of hope our own student groups would try to avoid imitating her.