There is a border war raging between the US and Canada: a battle for students that offers colourful proof of intensifying competition for international students.
The first salvo was fired by the University of Windsor in the Canadian province of Ontario, just across the border from the US city of Detroit. Starting this year, it is offering a “US Neighbour Fee” of half its usual price for first-year American undergraduates – C$5,000 (£2,900) a year instead of the C$10,000 it used to charge.
Michigan’s Wayne State University returned fire from the American side, lowering its tuition for students from Ontario to the same amount that in-state undergraduates pay, plus 10 per cent: that comes to about $10,000, a saving of $11,633 a year compared with what Ontarians previously were charged.
All this is playing out against the backdrop of falling enrolment in the US and concerted pressure on universities in Canada to increase further their international student numbers, which have gone up 50 per cent over the past decade.
As more countries vie for international business, “you are seeing national governments driving national strategies, and I think you’ll see more of it”, said Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education.
He added: “Maybe a decade ago, if you said there’s a concerted national government effort to promote a country as a destination for international students, you were mainly talking about Australia. Today you have to talk about Canada, Germany, France, Spain, the UK, all with national government-level efforts to attract international students.”
About 10 per cent of students in Canada come from outside the country, generating C$8 billion (£4.6 billion) a year – more than the nation earns from exports of wheat, according to the government.
The national goal is to double the percentage by 2022.
The most appealing target is Americans, 9,190 of whom already go to universities north of the International Boundary. That makes Canada the most popular destination for US students after the UK, which gets 16,185.
One way to attract more Americans is by offering them better financial deals. At present, US university tuition is skyrocketing and Canadian tuition for foreign students is almost as high.
An American at the University of Toronto, for instance, could pay about C$32,000 a year – more than twice what a Canadian would be charged and not much less than the tuition at a private, non-profit US university.
International student fees in Canada rose another 10 per cent this year, three times faster than domestic fees. So the next logical step in the scramble for students appears to be price cuts.
Windsor, with about 16,500 students, enrolled only 47 from the US last year. This year, that number fell to 45: a spokeswoman for the institution said this was because the new discount had not been announced when this year’s intake applied.
The university expects its American ranks to quadruple over the next two years as the US Neighbour Fee takes effect, said Dave Bussière, assistant vice-president for admissions and records.
“We are actively recruiting in the border states,” he confirmed.
Meanwhile, French students at McGill University are being charged the same as Canadians from the institution’s home province of Quebec, which is much less than other international students pay.
The University of Ottawa has reduced tuition for international students who study in French to the same amount as domestic students pay – about C$6,000-8,000, down from as much as C$24,000.
The university said it took the step to more than double its number of francophone foreign students from 18 per cent to 40 per cent; most French-speaking international students come from countries where tuition is free or much lower than in Canada, so they require financial inducements, it added.
And several Canadian universities have started to offer reduced fees to graduate students from Brazil, a key country of origin in the international student market.
Competition “is picking up speed because strategic plans are talking about the need to prepare the next generation for global citizenship”, said Dr Goodman. However, it was “too soon to tell” whether this would translate into a broader price war.
“There are still a lot of people who want to study abroad and have the means to do so [at current prices],” he added.