ICYMI: How Canada’s foreign-student boom is creating a host of problems

Good comments by Alex Usher of HESA, with money quote being “It’s untenable:”

Deepali Verma is nearing the end of her studies at Cape Breton University. She has taken just one class on campus.

Instead of going to lecture halls, she and hundreds of her peers in the university’s post-baccalaureate diploma programs have attended classes at a Cineplex movie theatre, before nightly showings of Top Gun: Maverick and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

The university has increased its intake of foreign students – so much, and so quickly, that it has run out of space on campus. During the recent fall semester, 90 courses in the post-baccalaureate programs were held at Cineplex, compared with 56 on campus and 20 online. About 2,680 students were enrolled in those programs. All but two were international students, and the vast majority – 86 per cent – came from India.

Ms. Verma, who is from New Delhi, is paying more than $27,000 in tuition and fees for her two-year education in business analytics. She isn’t pleased with the Cineplex arrangement. “I would say it’s disgusting,” she said.

That’s not the extent of students’ frustrations. Every day on social media, there are desperate pleas for housing in Sydney, N.S., a sleepy town of 31,000 that is trying to absorb a spike of newcomers caused by the university’s increased admissions. Quite often, incoming students days away from arriving in Canada still don’t know where they’ll live. Others complain about a public transit system that is buckling under rapid growth in ridership.

And these troubles are not unique to this corner of the Maritimes. Across the country, postsecondary schools have dramatically ramped up their admissions of foreign students, creating knock-on effects for their communities.

This has led to accusations that colleges and universities are gorging on international student fees while turning a blind eye to local challenges. Some critics are saying schools need to be reined in.

“You’re getting a lot of localized stresses that come from the fact that institutions don’t seem to care where their students live,” said Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, a consulting firm. “They don’t care about the housing problems faced by the local community. They’re acting like bad neighbours.”

Colleges and universities control a major chunk of population growth. At the end of 2021, there were more than 620,000 study permit holders in Canada from abroad. Before the pandemic, which led to temporary border restrictions, their ranks jumped by 434,000 people over the course of a decade. That’s about the population of Halifax.

There is a simple explanation for the explosion: money.

Government funding of postsecondary schools has not increased in inflation-adjusted terms in nearly 15 years, while domestic enrolments have peaked, according to a recent report from Higher Education Strategy Associates. That has turned international students into a crucial, and expanding, source of revenue.

The average undergraduate tuition for international students at Canadian universities has nearly doubled over the past 15 years, after adjustments for inflation. Foreign students now pay five times more than their domestic peers; it used to be three times more.

“There is no sign yet that Canadian institutions are pricing themselves out of the market,” the report says.

It helps that colleges and universities are an integral part of the immigration pipeline. After graduation, foreign students can get multiyear work permits, which help them acquire Canadian job experience that is valuable in Canada’s points-based system for economic immigrants.

The eventual goal, for many students, is to gain permanent residency. And the federal government wants a lot more immigrants. Its goal is to admit 500,000 permanent residents annually by 2025. The country brought in slightly more than 400,000 last year. Around 150,000 of them had started their journeys in Canada as international students.

However, unlike the permanent residency program, there are no targets for study permit holders. Postsecondary schools can admit as many foreign students as they wish. Ontario colleges are notable for jacking up admissions numbers, Mr. Usher said.

“Can this be done better? Yes,” he said. “But it means actually not letting every institution decide for itself, whenever it wants to increase these numbers. It’s untenable.”

Around 21,000 beds will be added to student residences in the 24 largest domestic markets by 2025, according to a report from real estate consultants Cushman & Wakefield, published earlier this year. At recent rates of admissions growth, that would cover just a portion of the incoming wave of students.

This pushes more students into the private rental market, where they compete with other residents for a limited number of housing units in supply-starved cities.

“It’s not just international students having trouble finding housing. That has an effect on the local market,” Mr. Usher said. “And it’s a tax that institutions are placing specifically on low-income families in those communities.”

Ms. Verma moved from Sydney to Halifax in the fall semester, as part of a required co-op term. Now she can’t find a room back in Sydney. She may commute – a one-way drive of five hours or so – to her final two classes.

“There is literally no space out there. I can’t even express how we are feeling. It’s really terrible,” she said.

Gurwinder Singh, who has also taken the bulk of his recent classes at Cineplex, likens the situation to paying for an iPhone but getting a knock-off. “It just felt like discrimination against the international students,” he said.

Mr. Singh will be making the same journey as Ms. Verma for his final class. He is moving to Halifax with his wife, who can’t find a job in Sydney. He also hopes to find a job in Halifax, and wants to limit his time away. “I’m not going to lose extra dollars” by staying overnight near the university, he said.

Sara Asalya, founder of the Newcomer Students’ Association, said “the burden of high tuition fees” is the number-one concern she hears about from international students. They often work multiple jobs to make ends meet.

The federal government is making it easier for them to work. This fall, it temporarily removed a limit on their job hours. Now international students enrolled in full-time studies can work more than 20 hours a week off campus. The government has said the change will help employers, who have complained about a lack of workers.

“These government decisions are really coming at a time when the government is pressured to look at the labour shortage, more than looking at the actual experience of these students,” Ms. Asalya said.

“I don’t think we can continue to increase the intake, and lift the limit of hours, without building a proper infrastructure to support these students.”

Gordon MacInnis, Cape Breton University’s vice-president of finance and operations, said the school is dealing with a sudden rush of students, because many had to postpone their studies owing to pandemic-related border restrictions. The university had nearly 4,000 international students in the fall semester, an increase of roughly 1,600 (or 68 per cent) from the previous year, according to preliminary survey data from the Association of Atlantic Universities. Foreign students accounted for 72 per cent of CBU’s full-time enrolments, and their ranks have grown by more than 3,000 (or 343 per cent) in five years.

Even so, the fall spike caught the university off guard. “They all showed up more than we were anticipating,” Mr. MacInnis said. “This bubble will be with us for about two years,” he added, because foreign students are mostly enrolled in two-year programs.

Mr. MacInnis said CBU is not the first university to rent out movie theatres for lectures. It has spent money to retrofit those spaces for classes, he noted, and a shuttle bus will run between Cineplex and campus, starting in January.

Still, these are “stopgap measures,” he said. The goal is to invest in school infrastructure and eventually “repatriate” its staff and students to the main campus.

Starting in May, CBU will be limiting its intake of students in the post-baccalaureate programs to ease some of the pressures caused by the recent uptick in enrolments.

Nova Scotia recently announced it is investing $5-million in a CBU project to build hundreds of housing units in Sydney, although the development is years away from completion. In the interim, many students are feeling conflicted about their choice of university. Ms. Verma was initially smitten with the school and Sydney, which was so peaceful compared to her native New Delhi.

But her recent struggles – in particular, with finding a home – have left a bitter taste.

“I won’t recommend anybody to come to CBU right now, because I don’t want people to suffer or go through the same things that we are going through,” she said. “It’s really hard here.”

Source: How Canada’s foreign-student boom is creating a host of problems

Visible Minority Students and Professorial Time Use

Interesting notes on methodology and the opportunities:

Unfortunately, I’m not here to announce that Canada has overtaken Nigeria or Burkina Faso for the time it takes to release national-level enrolment data (we still lag, sadly).  But the only national statistical agency we have has still managed to put out a couple of interesting pieces of interest to higher education over the last few months.  Together they make a neat little post.

Let’s start with the Profile of Canadian graduates at the bachelor level belonging to a group designated as a visible minority, 2014 to 2017 cohorts, by Sylvie Brunet and Diane Galarneau.  This is a fascinating piece, but also, as I will show in a moment, because it shows all the amazing stuff that StatsCan is capable of producing through new data-matching techniques but is choosing not to.

So, the data first: among other things, the authors show that:

a) students belonging to a group designated as a visible minority made up about 30% of all graduates of Canadian universities between 2014 and 2017– a figure which mostly lines up with previous estimates from the Canadian Undergraduate Survey Consortium which suggested that 25% of incoming students in 2010 and 36% in 2013 were self-identified visible minority.

b) visible minority students as a whole are slightly overrepresented in the graduate population compared to non-visible minorities, but this is not true of all individual ethnicities in the sample (tl;dr Chinese students are significantly over-represented, others much less so).

c) visible minority students – especially those of Chinese origin – are somewhat more likely than non-visible minorities to be enrolled either in business or STEM programs – but this effect appears to be more pronounced among female rather than male students. 

d) visible minority students were much less likely to be living apart from their parents than were non-visible minority students.

e) Black, Arab and Latin American students were much more likely to have children of their own than were non-visible minority students or other visible minorities.

Not earth-shattering, but interesting.  There is some pretty cool methodology in here, which identifies students’ ethnicities by linking their record-level student data with data from the 2016 census, and their financial status by linking to the T1FF tax file.  In fact, it is so interesting that one must ask: why in the hell isn’t StatsCan using this data more regularly and to better effect?

For instance, using exactly this technique, one could report on the ethnic composition of the student body, nationally and by province, annually.  This is data we currently do not have, but apparently now it is possible to generate.  So why don’t we?  Similarly – and MUCH more importantly – the link to the T1FF means that it should be possible to identify incoming students every year and compare their parents income to the incomes of all families with kids aged 18.  That would allow us to annually monitor not only the extent to which the student body is economically representative of the population as a whole (nationally and in each province) but also stratification between institutional types and even among fields of study.

Technically, StatsCan has opened a gold mine with these linkage techniques, but they have yet to make these crucial links. The potential for genuinely useful data to drive accountability agendas in higher education is immense, and they are just sitting on it.  It’s kind of mind-bending.

Anyways, on to the second piece from StatsCan, which is a data release from a couple of years ago that somehow slipped my notice.  Every decade or so, StatsCan asks professors how they use their time.  Believe it or not, they do this solely to derive a largely fictious number for international comparison: namely, to derive how much of the national research enterprise is “paid for” by the higher education sector (as opposed to the government sector or the private sector).  Basically, this number is calculated by multiplying professors’ salaries by the fraction of the time they claim to spend on research, and you can’t do that without knowing anything about time-allocation, so…

Figure 1 shows average hours per week spent by university professors on four different types of activities: teaching (in-class), teaching (outside the class), research, and service/administration (which includes everything from committee work to reviewing articles for journals.  Basically, it shows a profession that works a few more hours per week than other professions, on average, but not inordinately so (46 hours per week).  Remember: this is a self-report survey by professors, so if you disagree with what’s shown here, blame your fellow profs (though, to be fair, my guess is that had they split out some categories to include more specific categories on things like “keeping up with the literature”, the numbers probably would have been higher). 

Figure 1: Hours per Week, by Task, Full-Time Professors, 2019

This data shows us that professors work consistent hours across a range of factors.  There are not huge differences based on sex, disability, or visible minority status.  Even between professors in STEM fields and those not in STEM fields, the difference is only about two hours per week less on teaching and eight hours per week more on research than their colleagues in other fields.  The most significant gap listed here is between Indigenous and non-Indigenous profs, but I suspect the difference is at least partially accounted for by not accounting specifically for work in the community. 

(There is also data in this release for college teachers, but frankly it is much less interesting: they work about twice the teaching hours as university staff, 20% of the research hours and 60% of the admin hours for, in total, a work week which is about five hours shorter, on average, than that of university instructors).

Anyways, there you have it.  A national statistical agency which is by turns utterly infuriating yet technically skilled and occasionally illuminating.   

Source: https://myemail.constantcontact.com/One-Thought-to-Start-Your-Day–Visible-Minority-Students-and-Professorial-Time-Use.html?soid=1103080520043&aid=2db13gLh7vY

Usher: Viewpoint diversity [at universities]

Sound critique of the methodology used and resulting conclusions:

Last week, the MacDonald-Laurier Institute released a truly bad paper on “viewpoint diversity” at Canadian Universities.  How bad was it, you ask?  Really bad.  Icelandic rotting shark bad.  Crystal Pepsi bad.  Final Season of Game of Thrones bad. 

The basic thrust of the paper, co-written by Christopher Dummitt and Zachary Patterson, is that

  • The Canadian professoriate is well to the left of the Canadian public
  • Within the academy, those who describe themselves as being on the right are much more likely to say they “self-censor” or find work a “hostile environment”
  • This is an attack on academic freedom
  • There should therefore, in the name of academic freedom, be a significant government bureaucracy devoted to ensuring that right-wingers are hired more often and feel more at home within the academy.

Dummitt and Peterson are not, of course, the first to note that the academy is somewhat left-leaning.  Back in 2008, MR Nakhaie and Barry D. Adam, both then at the University of Windsor, published a study in the Canadian Journal of Sociology showing that university professors were about three times as likely to have voted NDP in the 2000 general election than the general population (the NDP got about 8.5% of the vote in that election), about as likely to have voted Liberal, and less likely to have voted Bloc, Conservative, or Reform.   Being at a more prestigious institution made a professor less likely to support the NDP, as did being a professor in business or in the natural sciences. 

(This effect of discipline on faculty political beliefs is not a Canadian phenomenon but a global one.  Here is a summary of US research on the issue, and an old but still interesting article from Australia which touches on some of the same issues). 

Anyways, this new study starts out with a survey of professors.  The sample they ended up with was ludicrously biased: 30% from the humanities, 47% from the Social Sciences and 23% from what they call “STEM” (where are health professions?  I am going to assume they are in STEM).  In fact, humanities professors are 13% of the overall faculty, social science profs 23%, and the rest of the professoriate 64%.  Despite having read the Nakhaie/Adam paper, which explains exactly how to get the data that would allow a re-weighting of the data (you can buy it from Stastcan, or you can look up table 3.15 in the CAUT Almanac, which is a couple of years out of date but hardly incorrect) , the authors claim that “relatively little information was available for the population of professors in Canada so no weights were developed”.  In other words, either through incompetence or deliberate feigning of ignorance, the authors created a sample which overrepresented the known-to-be most leftist bits of the academy by 2 times and underrepresented the known-to-be less leftists bits of the academy by a similar factor, and just blithely carried on as if nothing were amiss.

Then – this is the good one if you are familiar with conventions of Canadian political science – they divided respondents into “left-wing” and “right-wing” partially by asking them to self-locate on a four-point likert scale which left no space to self-identify as a centrist and partly by asking them about their views on various issues or how they self-described on a simple left-right scale.  If they voted Green, Bloc, NDP or Liberal they were “left-wing” and if they voted Conservative or People’s party they were “right-wing”.  Both methods came up with a similar division between “left” and “right” among professors (roughly 88-12, though again that’s a completely unadjusted figure).  Now, generally speaking, no one in Canadian political science forces such a left-right choice, because the Liberals really aren’t particularly left wing.  That’s why there is nearly always room for a “centre” option.  Certainly, Nakhaie and Adam did so – why didn’t Dummitt and Peterson? 

Anyways, having vastly exaggerated the degree of polarization and the pinkness of professorial views, and on this basis declared a “political monoculture”, the authors then go on to note that the embittered right-wing professors appear to have different feelings about the workplace than do the rest of their colleagues.  They are three times more likely, for example, to say their departmental climate is “hostile”, for instance, or to say that they “fear negative repercussions” if their political views – specifically, on social justice, gender, and Equity Diversity and Inclusion – were to become known. They are twice as likely to say they have “refrained from airing views or avoided pursuing or publishing research” (which is a hell of a conflation of things if what you’re interested in examining is academic freedom).  On the basis of this, plus a couple of other questions that conflate things like job loss with “missed professional opportunities” or that pose ludicrous hypothetical questions about prioritizing social justice versus academic freedom, they declare a “serious crisis” which has “disturbing implications for the ability of universities to continue to act as bastions of open inquiry and rational thought in modern Canada” which requires things like legislation on academic freedom, and a bunch of things which would effectively ban universities from anti-racism initiatives.

Look, this is a bad study, full stop.  The methodology and question design are so obviously terrible that it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that its main purpose was to confirm the authors’ biases, and clearly whatever editorial/peer review process the Macdonald Laurier Institute uses to oversee these publications needs major work.  But if a result is significant enough, even a bad methodology can find it: might this be such a case?

Maybe.  Part of the problem is that this paper spends a lot of effort conflating “viewpoint diversity” with “party identification diversity”, which is absurd.  I mean, there are countries which allocate academic places based on party identity, but I doubt that those are places where many Canadian academics would want to teach.  Further, on the specific issues where people apparently feel they have a need to “not share their opinions” on issues concerning race and gender, there are in addition to a censorious left a lot of bad faith right-wing concern trolls too, which kind of tempers my ability to share the authors concern that this is a necessarily “bad thing”.  And finally, this idea that the notion of being an academic means you should be able to say whatever you want without possibility of facing criticism or social ostracism – which I think is implicitly what the authors are suggesting – is a rather significant widening of the concept of academic freedom that wouldn’t find universal acceptance.

I think the most you can say about these issues really is first that viewpoint diversity should be a concern of every department, but that to reduce it to “party identification” diversification or some notion of both-sidesism (anti-vaxxers in virology departments, anyone?) should be seen for the grotesquerie that it is.  Second, yes, society (not just universities) is more polarized around issues like gender and race and finding acceptable and constructive common language in which to talk about these concepts is difficult, but, my dudes, banging on about why someone who happens to have a teaching position is absolved from the hard work of finding that language because of some abstract notion of academic freedom is not helpful. 

And in any event, you could make such points without the necessity of publishing a methodologically omnishambles of a report like this one.  Just sayin.’

Source: Viewpoint diversity

The Reckoning: International Student Enrolment

Another possible indicator that housing may prove to be the canary in the coal mine with respect to current high levels of immigration, with Alex Usher’s take on international students:

I am calling it now: Canadian post-secondary institutions are very close to the end of the road on international student number growth.  It’s not because demand is going to dry up or anything like that.  There is still room for hundreds of thousands more international students if we wanted them, and probably demand to match as well.  It is simply that too many institutions have become too greedy, and they are imposing intolerable externalities on their surrounding communities.  A backlash is building.

I want to be clear about what’s not going to drive the backlash.  First, it’s not going to be about foreign students “taking spots from deserving Canadian students”.  This is a talking point in some places, but there are no post-secondary institutes and only a very few faculties nationally where one can genuinely point to domestic student numbers falling for any reasons other than demographics.  The spaces being taken up by international students are all spaces that exist only because international students are there, paying full freight for them.  The counter-factual to spots taken up by international students is – given current government funding practices – no spots at all, not spots taken up by domestic students.

Nor is it going to be from all those recent stories in outlets like The Walrus, the Toronto Starthe Globe and Mail etc.  about the exploitation faced by international students in the local labour market, about the incredible hardship many endure since tuition fees here are sometimes many times their parents annual income back in their home country (which, in these stories, is usually India, most often Punjab).  Clearly, we all decided in that very passive-aggressive Canadian way of ours – which is to say, we never had a discussion and agreed to a thing, we all went around self-interestedly and created a situation, then called it a consensus – that we were OK with creating a new class of immigrants who could evade the whole points-based immigration system simply by coming to Canada, paying some money to support our post-secondary system and gutting it out in low-wage jobs for a few years.   Exploitation?  Maybe.  But many ethnic groups who have immigrated to Canada over the past 150-odd years followed similar, gruelling, dues-paying periods in their history, so not many people are too fussed about it.  

No, the blowback is going to be about housing, and the way that some institutions have been packing in students without regard to local housing supply, which contributes to the steep rise in housing costs not just for international students but for all renters and first-time home buyers.  I discussed this a few weeks ago in the context of some new reports from my colleague Mike Moffatt at the Institute for Smart Prosperity: we are letting in hundreds of thousands of students, and not building any new housing.  Combined with a variety of other factors that are taking low-income housing off the market, it does not take a degree in economics to realize that there will be a shortage of spaces for anyone looking for low-rent housing.  This is, in effect, an externality that institutions are imposing on their neighbours: universities and colleges gain from tuitions, while local tenants are effectively paying a tax through higher housing costs.  

I suppose one could argue that the pros of having a thriving post-secondary institution in the neighbourhood outweighs the cons of these kinds of externalities, and on aggregate that’s true.  But rents aren’t paid on aggregate: they are paid by a very specific sector of the population – one which has a large overlap with the most vulnerable sector.  It is becoming an issue that politicians are hearing on doorsteps when they talk to voters.  In some communities, politicians are starting to relay those concerns to university and college leaders.  

Now, you might ask why opprobrium would rain on universities and colleges when they are far from the only culprits here. Long-term NIMBY-ism run amok leading to a catastrophic failure to build, the financialization of the housing market, the accumulated 30-year impact of the federal government leaving the affordable housing market and provinces failing to pick up the baton: there are indeed all sorts of supply-side issues that we can and should worry about at least as much as educational institutions juicing demand.  

But here’s the difference: none of the other players in this field spend their time shouting at the top of their lungs about how much they benefit the community.  And not just in financial terms; institutions are increasingly using communications tools like the UN Sustainable Development Goals to articulate not just how research and its dissemination helps to improve the world, but also how their local community benefits directly through more concrete actions (purchasing) and co-creation of knowledge.  Colleges have always anchored their value-proposition in terms of their value to local communities, but for many universities this is a more recent shift, one accelerated by COVID but in a larger sense driven by the dawning realization that all the money and research invested in higher education (worldwide, not just in Canada) isn’t exactly leading to the paradise of economic prosperity we all thought it would 30 years ago and that alternative ways of explaining value propositions to voters are needed.

This “good neighbour” policy makes eminent sense; it’s also why the international student/rental housing policy nexus is so deadly. Some institutions – and there’s no way to put this politely – are clearly acting as “bad neighbours”.  And once they get that labelled with that tag, it’s going to be hard to shed.  There are, of course, many institutions who are doing their best to get housing efforts started in their communities – though universities in Nova Scotia seem significantly more seized of this issue than those anywhere else – but new housing takes time to come on-stream.  It can take years, decades even, given the inanities of planning and land-use in this country’s big cities.   But those international students are showing up now, and in growing numbers, year after year.   Institutions that continue to pile pressure on local housing markets by adding more students are playing with fire.

So here’s my call: the international student market is not headed for a “bust” of any kind – remember, demand is still strong – but institutions will stop growing if they wish to maintain good community relations.  That’s a big problem, because international student dollars have essentially been the sole source of increased funding in Canadian post-secondary education since about 2015, and I don’t see governments lining up to backfill.  To some extent, institutions can mitigate this by upgrading services and charging higher fees to international students, but increasingly aggressive cost-containment strategies will need to be part of the solution as well.  At some institutions at least, this will come as a shock.

But this is the path we have been on since at least 2008 when provinces stopped increasing funding in real terms, but institutions kept on increasing spending by 2% per year after inflation.  For a long time, we used international students as a get-out-of-jail free card.  No more.  The reckoning is at hand.   

Source: The Reckoning