International students are cash cows. Let's milk some more.

Thursday, October 13, 2005


Written by Marty Williams

"International students are a lucrative source of cash, a fact that has prompted many universities and colleges in Canada to place the task of attracting foreign students at the top of their priorities. Foreign students pay an average of $12,587 a year compared to Canadian students who pay $4,140."
From: Embassy Magazine, September 2005

It’s refreshingly honest – and honestly refreshing -- to see somebody admitting that we really just want international students for their money. After all, they pay (on average) about three times as much in tuition fees as domestic students do – and still only take up one lecture seat, one parking spot, and one place in line in front of me at the Palace. (Okay, I don’t go to the Palace, but if I did, I’m sure I’d appreciate them for that).

On top of the triple-the-cash whammy we impose, it’s heartening to know that they are also exempt from the protection of any tuition fee freezes that pesky Provincial governments sometimes impose. This means a school can jack the rate on them any old time. And they do. It’s a sweet deal, for sure.

But then again, it has always been a lucrative trade, just one that nobody wanted to talk about. Back in the simple-minded 1980s and 90s we might have thought it immoral to ask for triple tuition fees on top of all the additional expenses international students must incur; we’d have pointed out that such a substantial differential would exclude some of those most in need of our help, that only the internationally rich would come to drink from our well. Maybe we were embarrassed – as a rich country -- to take so much from people who had less than us. Perhaps we even considered it our duty to share our knowledge and expertise.

Back then, we would tell ourselves, money was just a side benefit. What we were really interested in doing was upping our cultural competence (whatever the hell that was). We’d have also said that bringing international students to this country was about making connections, about deepening our understanding of the world community; that we wanted to forge global links on our way to becoming an internationally savvy multi-lingual country. How quaint it all sounds.

Thankfully, we are over that now. We have seen the light and can finally admit that we don’t really care about those squishy and hard-to-quantify benefits that may come from mixing with folks from around the globe: what we’re really after is the money.
Now that somebody has figured out that math (this just in: $12,000 is more than $4,000) institutions are falling all over themselves to increase the number of foreign students studying here. They are cash cows and we want to milk them.

The trouble is, there are so many domestic students taking up so much room and paying (comparatively) so little, that colleges and universities may be hampered in their attempts to lure foreign students to our shores. Right now there are only about 60,000 of them, which is only six percent of students in Canada (although it’s higher at some schools, and at Acadia, in Nova Scotia, it’s at the twenty percent mark). With competition for places as fierce as it is, what would happen if more and more of those spaces were taken up by foreign students? Even though nobody much cares what international students get charged, there may be significant fallout when the college or university of your choice has no room because it is full of cash cows.

So how do institutions get at all that money without shutting out Canadian students?
One easy solution would be to raise domestic fees to the same level, but the hue and cry that goes up each time somebody suggests that plan has given institutions little stomach for it. People are always whining about “paying taxes” that support the institutions and “having the right” to an education and so on. And since these same people vote, it is unlikely that colleges and universities will be able to milk students for however much they want to charge. But what about imposing a two-tier system like they have in Australia? What if we charge some locals the “full fee” and let others off with a “subsidised” rate?

Here’s how it works down under:
For those people who don’t want to compete for spaces in the “subsidised” category, universities have set aside a certain number of places (up to 25%) for those willing and able to pay the “full fee.” They are not in the same competition, which allows the universities to make lots more cash while still claiming to be public institutions. Sounds like a win-win and it’s easy to see the benefits of importing such a system to Canada.
First of all, colleges and universities would get a lot more cash without relying on, and going to all the trouble of recruiting, foreign students. After all, in order to get them here they have to hear about us, and Canada is way down on the rest of the world’s list. (We have about the same number of post-secondary attendees as Australia, and they have about four times as many full-fee international students.) Getting them to choose Canada will cost a lot of money; it’s much easier and cheaper to boost the bank by charging $12,000 or so to some select domestic students.

Second, nobody could complain that all the spaces were being taken up by foreigners: they’d be full-fee paying and Canadian. And we’d save the expense of hiring more international student advisors, expanding special orientations and the special programs we have to put on to integrate them.

Third, and most importantly, it would teach people an important lesson: cash beats brains every time. It won’t matter that you didn’t make an 85% average in high school when you can buy your way in to the university of your choice. You won’t have to compete with the lower economic classes who have nothing better to do -- and who can’t afford to do anything other than – study. We could finally dismiss “merit” as a method of discernment and call it what it really is: a millstone around the neck of rich incompetents who, if they don’t get in to school here, are forced to find a place where cash speaks louder than mediocre grades.

Now I know that there are some residents of this socialistic country we still sort-of live in who will say this plan is the thin edge of the wedge. They will say that if we allow a few people to jump the queue and pay full fees it will be too temping to charge everybody that much. They fear that if this plan is implemented the places that we reserve for the rich could increase to the point where most undergraduates will be paying full fees, and that only a few will qualify for the subsidised rate. No doubt some will say that it is not an ”Australiaization” of our system, but an Americanization of it: that we will create elite college system that a few lucky poor folks are allowed in to; that we might as well privatize the whole thing and get it over with.

Well, I don’t know about that. That might be the next logical step.

But I do know that as of now we don’t have any qualms about taking full fees from international students, and that we see an increase in their numbers as easy money. We view it as a legitimate way to fund our schools and keep our taxes low and don’t care much to help those foreign students who can’t afford the higher fees. Since we are not scouring the globe searching for the poor-but-deserving, for the poor who could use our help, why get all knotted up about letting some domestic students pay a whole lot more? When it comes down to it, we already have a two-tier system. Maybe it’s time to stop pretending we don’t, and instead of running all over the globe looking for foreigners to herd our way we milk the cash-cows in our own backyard.

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  1. Posted by: Hannah on Oct 13, 2005 @ 1:58pm

    Great article Marty.

  2. Posted by: luke! on Oct 13, 2005 @ 7:00pm

    The simplest solution to this whole funding crisis is to simply ban Ontario residents from attending university and allow only international students.

    And the children of Liberal politicians. Of course.

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