Douglas Todd: COVID-19 lockdown triggers foreign-student flight from Canada

Good article by Todd and likely more realistic than the overly optimistic International students determined to study in Canada despite coronavirus, with some initial data highlighting the difficulties facing the current business models of universities:

Jenny Kwak, an international student from South Korea, remembers in March how four of five young people in her university dorm packed their luggage and just disappeared.

“They went home to China, India, the Philippines, Brazil, the U.S. — you name it,” said Kwak, a 21-year-old arts student interviewed on the large empty campus of the University of B.C., which last year enrolled more than 17,000 international students.

It’s hard to forecast how many international students will return, either to Canada or other nations. But the mass exodus of foreign students is brewing into a crisis for colleges and universities in the West that rely on their high fees to hire faculty and staff and construct new edifices.There were 642,000 foreign students in Canada at the end of 2019, double the number of five years earlier. International students account for 20 per cent of post-secondary enrolment in Canada, where many politicians view them as essential to the country’s economic expansion.

Foreign-students programs around the Western world will take “a massive hit” from the coronavirus, says Oxford University professor Simon Marginson, director of the Centre for Global Higher Education.

Post-secondary schools can expect at least 12 months of “abnormal conditions” from the COVID-19 pandemic, with at least five years before global student mobility recovers, says Marginson, whose centre is a partnership of 14 major universities.

Many smaller private colleges, especially those that rely almost entirely on foreign-student fees, will likely collapse, predict higher education specialists Philip Altbach, of Boston College, and Hans de Wit, from the Netherlands. Large respected universities, many of which continue to draw taxpayers’ dollars, will likely survive.

Even though the state of affairs will be different for each nation, Altbach and de Wit say global competition will become fiercer for what will remain of what was until last year the 5.2 million students studying abroad, the largest cohort coming from China.

There are lessons to be culled from the contrasting ways the leaders of Canada and Australia — which take in the most foreign students per capita, including from China — are responding to the dramatic exit of so many.While Canada’s immigration department and schools are not providing much information on how many foreign students have left or may not come back because of the pandemic, Australia’s politicians are more frank. They say many of the 720,000 foreign students in the country have left, in droves.Australia’s acting immigration minister says 300,000 people on study visas (and temporary work visas) departed since January. And a former senior immigration official in Australia, Abul Rizvi, predicts one-quarter more foreign students and workers will depart by year’s end.

It’s not surprising. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told non-Australians to return to their home countries if they could not financially support themselves during the coronavirus crisis. Like most nations, he did not offer wage subsidies to foreign nationals.Politicians in Australia and elsewhere are worried international students will compete for jobs with the millions of citizens who have been frozen out of work due to COVID-19. And a segment of Australians appreciate the departure of many could lead to reduced house and rental costs.In contrast, Canada is more generous to foreign students.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has quietly confirmed foreign students with a SIN number can apply for the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which gives up to $2,000 a month to residents of Canada who have lost their jobs because of COVID-19.The government also removed the 20-hour-per-week limit on how much international students could work during their term. Ottawa will now allow them to work unlimited hours if it is with an essential service. In B.C., foreign students also receive subsidized government medical care.Unfortunately, in Canada it’s almost impossible to obtain solid data on how many students have left Canada or don’t intend to return. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada told Postmedia it doesn’t keep “exit” information. And media officials from both UBC and Simon Fraser University said their numbers don’t indicate any change, adding they won’t speculate about the fall.

Canada stopped issuing study visas on March 18, but will let anyone who had a visa before then return. The only data the immigration department offered about how COVID-19 has affected study visa holders comes from before Canada locked down.That data shows, during January and February, when COVID-19 was exploding out of Wuhan in China, the number of students from China applying for Canadian study visas dropped by almost half — to 5,164 from 9,495, compared to the same period a year earlier. Applications from South Korean also fell sharply.The decline in study visa applications is a sign of a more permanent trend for the next five years, according to Marginson. He warned student movement patterns will shift for East Asians, with fewer opting for North America, Western Europe, the U.K. and Australia — and more deciding to stay closer to home and study in Japan, South Korea or China.

How Canada and Australia will handle their foreign-student relationship with East Asian countries, especially China, will be telling. At the end of 2019, Australia had 212,000 students from China and Canada had 142,000.But while Australia is not afraid to talk bluntly to China, including about wanting an international investigation into how COVID-19 broke out in Wuhan, Canada’s Liberal government stays silent about China’s transgressions.Ottawa goes out of its way to encourage international students because its aim, rarely discussed, is to give them preferential treatment as future permanent residents, moving into Canadian jobs and housing.

Since the impact of foreign students on Canada’s cities is profound, one would hope the country’s public officials would be more transparent about a strategy that is now seriously in jeopardy.

Source: Douglas Todd: COVID-19 lockdown triggers foreign-student flight from Canada

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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