Canadian colleges seek to reduce reliance on China and India

Warned over reliance on students from abroad, career-focused campuses hope for more government investment while chasing prospects beyond usual supplying nations

December 16, 2021
Canada and Ontario flags seen waving in-front of the the US-Canada border, Ambassador Bridge crossing on sunny day.
Source: iStock

Canada’s career-focused college system has embarked on aggressive efforts to find international students from outside India and China, recognising its dangerous financial reliance on those two countries.

Linda Franklin, president of Colleges Ontario, acknowledged the concern after a provincial government audit found that non-Canadian students – largely from the world’s two most populous nations – account for 68 per cent of her sector’s tuition fee revenue but just 30 per cent of its enrolment.

The auditor general of Ontario, Bonnie Lysyk, warned the colleges about the serious danger of sudden travel restrictions, and said they should “not further increase dependency on international enrolments without a longer-term strategy in place to address the risks of this approach for financial sustainability”.

While the review involved only the 24 colleges in Canada’s largest province, Ms Franklin said it reflected a nationwide problem in her sector, which is the job-minded counterpart to the nation’s academic-oriented university system.

Her group’s nationwide association affirmed the heavy reliance across Canada on students from India and China, as well as the strategy of courting new partner countries. “It will take some time, but it is happening,” said Alain Roy, vice-president for international partnerships at Colleges and Institutes Canada.

Ontario alone accounts for nearly half the international students at Canada’s colleges and institutes. Within the province, the two dozen colleges already have students from 150 nations, although admittedly with low numbers from outside India and China, Ms Franklin told Times Higher Education.

In Ontario and throughout Canada, Ms Franklin and Mr Roy said, colleges and institutes were working to build the levels of word-of-mouth familiarity across Africa, Europe, South America and Asia that they currently enjoy in India and China.

Both identified Vietnam, the Philippines, Colombia and Brazil as chief initial targets. “We’ve seen tremendous growth in markets where we’ve been active,” Mr Roy said. Examples include Vietnam, where the supply of students to Canadian colleges and institutes rose from some 2,000 students in 2015 to about 15,000 in 2019 before the pandemic, he said.

Canada’s entire post-secondary sector has long been popular with international students. Their overall numbers in the country have climbed steadily over the past 15 years, exceeding 600,000 prior to the pandemic – or about 20 per cent of nationwide enrolment – before dropping down nearer to 500,000 last year.

The risk of that reliance falls most heavily on the nation’s 200-plus public colleges and institutes. “We’re the lowest-funded system in Canada, as the auditor general pointed out,” Ms Franklin said. “And because the government tends to raise tuition – when it does – by percentage points, universities gain more ground than colleges,” because their average tuition charges run about four times larger, she said.

Along with fretting over the risk of Covid and other disruptions to visas and international travel, Canadian colleges are forced by their financial dependence on foreign students to keep weighing how much they can reasonably charge them. For the 2020-21 academic year, the Ontario auditor general reported, the province’s colleges and institutes charged domestic students C$3,228 (£1,920) a year, down 10 per cent from two years earlier. Over that same period, it said, they increased tuition fees for overseas students by 8 per cent, to C$14,306.

The colleges are trying to help cover their costs by recruiting international students, Ms Franklin said. That, however, “shouldn’t be a substitute for adequate government funding”, she said.

The situation, Mr Roy said, also required colleges and institutes “to be more resourceful and entrepreneurial in finding other sources of revenue”. That included greater efforts to solicit donations, and to generate revenue by providing corporate training, he said.

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