Are B.C.’s international students overexploited?

B.C. Federation of Students report shows over reliance on internationals

Despite accounting for only 19.5 per cent of B.C.’s student population, international students make up 47.9 per cent of B.C.’s tuition fee revenue (FILE PHOTO).

Early last month, the B.C. Federation of Students (BCFS) released a report on international students in the province, the financial difficulties they face and their impact on the economy.

The first report on of its kind in the province, International Students in British Columbia was commissioned as a response to increasing issues, financial, cultural and social, for international students.

“We saw over the past year that international student issues were something that kept coming up, kept being reported on,” said Aran Armutlu, chairperson of BCFS. “Eventually it got to a point where the members mandated the federation to take on this work.”

As it stands, B.C. has the second most international students in Canada, behind Ontario. Yet between the years of 2004 and 2013, B.C. has had the largest increase of international students, with the international student population raising from 10.9 per cent of the total student population to 17.6 per cent.

The report states that as of 2015, B.C.’s international student population totalled 113,095. This marked a 38 per cent increase since Canada’s adoption of the International Education Strategy in 2011, which called for the doubling of Canada’s international student population by 2022.

International students have such an impact on B.C.’s economy that international education services is the province’s third largest export. In 2015, international student spending produced $176.4 million in tax revenue and contributed $1.77 billion to the provincial GDP.

Despite the economic boon that international students give the province, in addition to what they add in both jobs and culture, the province’s current model is far from sustainable, says Armutlu.

“Australia is a perfect example for what B.C. is going through right now,” Armutlu said. “They saw back in ‘08 or ‘09 a huge influx of international students that were coming in. They weren’t taking the proper steps to make sure those students were being supported or ensuring they were being treated fairly, then they saw a huge backlash.”

Eventually, the pressure in Australia would turn xenophobic and lead to the murder of an Indian student, subsequent protests and the Indian government issuing a travel warning for students headed to Australia. While the country has since recovered, their economy was impacted for years after.

Here in B.C., the research in the report has found that international students have constantly been exploited by post-secondary institutions, paying much more than their fair share. While international students make up a fifth of B.C.’s post-secondary student population, they account for almost half of the province’s tuition fee revenue.

“Taking 2015 as an example, the enrolment of 15,228 full-time international undergraduate students at universities in British Columbia, paying average tuition fees of $20,485 per year, gave the universities $311,945,580 in revenue. In comparison, 62,784 domestic university undergraduate students that same year paid average tuition fees of $5,397 to generate $338,845,248,” the report reads.

Despite paying more than domestic students, the report states international students don’t have much in the way of financial support or social support either. Issues in the quality of education also exist, with private-sector preparatory education companies often charging high sums for high-school or ESL courses.

In addition to this, Armutlu says that BCFS has had to bust multiple myths surrounding international students since the report came out. One being that international students are often financially secure when research shows that half of international students don’t come from strong financial backgrounds.

“There is also a big myth that international students take domestic students seats in classrooms, that is something that is incorrect,” he said. “Institutions get their funding based on the number of domestic student seats they are creating.”

While B.C. isn’t yet in the position Australia was in a decade ago, Armutlu and BCFS want the B.C. government to take action before it’s too late. Currently, BCFS is calling for an annual cap on increases to international student fees, much like how it is done for domestic tuition and a new B.C. international education strategy.

“We want regulation to exist similar to how domestic students have them. Having that will create fairness, consistency and predictability for international students,” Armutlu said. “And again, a new and robust BC international education strategy and one that really focuses and puts emphasis on providing efficient support for international students.”

BCFS also sent their report to the Ministry of Advanced Education, Skills and Training, who have since responded, recognizing the current state of international education in the province as an issue and something that they’ll work on.