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OPINION: International Students - Ontario's Cash Cows?

Courtesy TheMarkNews.com

The 2010 Ontario budget announced Premier Dalton McGuinty’s plan to “open” the province to the world. This is an admirable goal, although one wonders how “closed” Ontario—one of the most multi-cultural provinces in Canada – actually is.

Nevertheless, a centrepiece of the Open Ontario strategy is an emphasis on post-secondary education. Specifically, the premier plans to aggressively recruit international students with an eye to increasing their enrolment in our colleges and universities by 50 per cent. This certainly sounds impressive. But we need to be sure that the Ontario government’s intentions here have the best interests of international students at heart.

No doubt international students are good for Ontario’s universities. They enrich the diversity and depth of the classroom experience and, as the premier rightly observes, they improve our connections with the economies and societies of other nations. If McGuinty wants to expand these benefits by bringing more students to Ontario, the more the better.

But the premier wants Ontario to follow the Australian model, where international students are that country’s third biggest industry. This is worrying. The premier is right to point out that international students carry spin-off economic benefits. But if international education is seen only as an industry, international students are no longer individuals with experiences and knowledge to share with Ontario. They become a source of revenue.

This students-as-revenue perspective becomes more disturbing in the context of the challenges facing Ontario’s universities. Despite recent investments in the system, our institutions remain underfunded. This has serious consequences for the quality of education students receive.

Ontario now has the highest student-to-faculty ratio in Canada at 27:1, limiting the all-important interaction between professors and the individuals they teach. Aging labs, libraries, and classrooms are in urgent need of renewal. Faculties across Ontario are also struggling with hiring freezes and departmental budget cuts. These financial restraints curtail course choices and lead to the packed lecture halls that, unfortunately, are now the rule at our universities.

These problems are set to get much worse. The Council of Ontario Universities expects an additional 75,000 students to seek enrolment at Ontario universities over the next decade. Most of this growth will be concentrated in the Greater Toronto Area. Without the funds to accommodate these individuals, our universities could well be facing a crisis of quality.

University administrators are keenly aware of this looming problem, and are looking for solutions. International students are a convenient salve. Currently, they pay up to four times as much in tuition fees as their domestic colleagues. These fees are also unregulated, meaning they can go from “affordable” to “yikes” in very little time. So more international students mean more revenue.

The obvious danger here is that international students become the means to finance the expansion of the higher education system. In other words, they may become “cash cows” for the government and universities. This is unfair to these students, and grossly undervalues their true contributions to our society.

The premier is right: international students have much to offer our province. In turn, we need to make sure we offer them a quality learning experience. We should not rely on students from abroad to fund the growth of our university system. We need to invest now to ensure every student receives a high-quality, affordable education.

Well-funded universities deliver immense economic and social benefits to their communities. They are also more attractive to the international students Premier McGuinty is eager to bring to the province. But absent the needed investment in more faculty and better infrastructure, there is a very real danger that the premier’s plan will do little to improve the quality of education on offer in Ontario—and leave international students to pick up the cheque.

The Mark News
is Canada’s online forum for opinion and analysis.