Usher: Backlash on international students to fund our system

Nugget in Usher’s year-end summary:

The second take-away from this year is the backlash against using international students to fund our system.  This is mainly because the higher rents in communities bordering the institutions most active in this scene are (correctly, I think) seen as a tax on non-home-owners being imposed for the dubious privilege of having a college or university in the neighborhood.  I’ve heard via the grapevine (because of course no official data will be available for another 18 months) that international students now make up 45% of the student body in Ontario colleges. Everyone (and I mean everyone) knows the current path is madness, but no one wants to be the first to leave the race for all those easy, easy dollars. Saner minds will eventually prevail on international students – ones that will try to focus on improving the quality of international education rather than the MOAR MOAR MOAR of the last few years – and when that happens, everyone will wonder how we allowed things to get out control in the first place.


Usher: A First Look At 2021 Education Census Data

Good analysis of census data by HESA:

Figure 1 shows the attainment rates of the population aged 25-64, by visible minority status and Indigenous identity.    What it shows is that there are some quite fascinating differences in attainment rates across different segments of the population.   Individuals who self-declare as visible minorities are somewhat less likely than other Canadian to have a PSE credential below the bachelor’s level but substantially more likely to have a degree at the bachelor’s level or above.  Those reporting Indigenous identity, meanwhile, have college credentials at higher levels similar to those of non-visible minority/non-Indigenous Canadians, but university attainment rates substantially  lower than those of other Canadians.  White Canadians have higher college attainment rates than visible minorities, but substantially lower university attainment rates. 

Figure 1: Post-Secondary Education Attainment by Level, Visible Minority Status and Indigenous Identity, Canadians Aged 25-64, Census 2021

Stacked bars showing that visible minorities have the highest rate of bachelor degree or above attainment.

This is, by the way, quite different from the situation in basically any other developed country except perhaps Australia and New Zealand; in most other countries with large scale immigration, visible minority populations tend to have much lower levels of education that the mainstream population.

One of the interesting things about this census is that it permits analysis not just by level of education but also by field of study.  Figure 2 runs the same analysis as figure 1, only examining the distribution of undergraduate degrees.  Again, we see some interesting distributions by visible minority/Indigenous identity.  The proportions of Canadians of various backgrounds who are in the fields of health and business are relatively consistent, but there are huge differences in the areas of education, social sciences/humanities and STEM.  For those with Indigenous identities, 45% of all degrees are in education, humanities and social sciences, while only 14% of all degrees are in STEM; among visible minorities (who, recall, are more than 3 times as likely to have a degree as those with Indigenous identity), it is 25% in education, humanities and social sciences and 35% in STEM.

Figure 2: Distribution of Degrees by Broad Field, Visible Minority Status and Indigenous Identity, Canadians Aged 25-64, Census 2021

Stacked bar charts showing percentage of people with education, humanities, SETM, management, health, or Other degrees

We can run the same kind of analyses by immigration status.  In figures 3 and 4, we repeat the analysis in figures 1 and 2, only by immigration status.  Statistics Canada divides Canadians into “first generation” (basically, individuals born outside Canada), “second generation” (at least one parent born outside Canada) and “third generation or more” (both parents born in Canada).  That second category is – if you ask me – a heck of a hodge-podge, so focus on the difference between first and third generations. 

Figure 3: Post-Secondary Education Attainment by Level and Immigration Generation, Canadians Aged 25-64, Census 2021

Stacked bars showing that "Third generation" people have the lowest percentage of bachelor attainments.

Figure 4: Distribution of Degrees by Broad Field and by Immigration Generation, Canadians Aged 25-64 Census 2021

Stacked bars showing that "Third generation" people have more humanities and social science degrees and "first generation" people have more STEM degrees.

There’s an old (American) cliche about how the first generation of immigrant families works hard in menial jobs to make sure their kids get ahead, the second generation works hard to get into professional schools and attract great wealth while the third generation goes to art school.  By the looks of it, Canada’s points-based immigration system allows us to skip that first generation thus bringing immigrants into humanities and arts programs that much faster.

Source: A First Look At 2021 Education Census Data

HESA: That Fifth Estate Episode [international students]

Good commentary on the abuse of international students by private vocational colleges in the GTA that are in public-private partnership (PPP) arrangements with non-GTA public colleges and the need for greater regulation:

Many of you will have seen the Fifth Estate episode that aired two weeks ago, about international students in Canadian institutions and how many of them think – sometimes not without reason – they have been sold a bill of goods with respect to the quality of the education they receive.  If you haven’t already watched it, it’s here and you may want to give it a gander before continuing with this blog.

Finished?  Good.  Then I’ll begin.

Broadly speaking, the story is one of supply meeting demand.  In Punjab (this story is all about Punjabi students, there might as well not be any other types in Canada so far as this story is concerned), there are a lot of poor families who want their sons and daughters to go abroad to make a new life.  In Canada, there are several post-secondary institutions who a) can provide a pathway to permanent residency if a student graduates from a 2-year program and b) are willing to expand spots almost to infinity to accommodate students wanting to take advantage of this path.   The usual televisual suspects give some facetime to presenter Mark Kelly are students, often despondent from parental pressure and homesickness, immigration consultants eager to play whistleblower, and teachers recounting students falling asleep in class, exhausted from trying to combine work and study.  But there’s also some not-so -usual suspects: where this piece breaks some new ground is showing how the whole recruitment operation works in Punjab. Specifically, the report uses through some hidden camera work finding agents giving out flagrantly incorrect and, in some cases, illegal advice.  (It’s not entirely clear whether these agents are contracted to specific Canadian institutions or not).

So, there is some important reporting in this show.  But there’s also some weird stuff, too.  For instance, near the beginning of the show, a health counsellor in Brampton claims that there are 50-60 suicides a year among Pubjabi students in Brampton alone.  You’d think this would be the actual center of the story, right?  Mass death in a Toronto suburb?  But no, the statement just hangs there, unverified, un-followed up (presumably the local coroner would be able to verify).  Bizarre.

What I found most baffling about the show was the producer’sdecision to insinuate that this was a true depiction of the international student market across Canada, when pretty clearly it is just a depiction of what is happening in Ontario colleges, and more specifically, in the private vocational colleges in the GTA that are in public-private partnership (PPP) arrangements with non-GTA public colleges.  That’s not to say this stuff is absent elsewhere (it’s not), but if you’re a follower of this blog, you’ll be aware of what an outlier Ontario colleges are.  But for some reason The Fifth Estate chose to just glide over this distinction.

In fact, even though the report focused on a handful of egregious cases in the GTA, it seemed incapable of consistent reporting on the details: yes, Alpha and Hanson Colleges are private career colleges, but the programs the international students are attending belong nominally to a pair of public colleges (St. Lawrence and Cambrian Colleges, respectively).  The show seems to be under the impression that it was the private institutions which made the deals to sign up 10x the number of students that the institution could physically hold.  But that’s not true: it is the public colleges that are responsible for this.  And by missing that distinction, it completely let the leadership of these public institutions off the hook. 

Another thing the show misses completely: all these schools are acting in defiance of Ministry Policy with respect to these PPP campuses.  Read the policy and you’ll quickly realize that the number of specific protocols being breached are more numerous than the ones being observed.  But the most egregious violation is that international enrolment at partnership colleges is not supposed to amount to more than twice the number of international students on the “home” campus.  Yet not even one of these public colleges with PPPs in the GTA are obeying this limit.  All of them are massively overenrolled in relation to the policy.  And yet consecutive Minister of Colleges and Universities have simply failed to enforce the policy.  Why?  Your guess is as good as mine, but with hundreds of millions of dollars involved, you’d think it’s something that both opposition parties and media would take more seriously.  Or rather, I understand why Ontario opposition parties are not taking it seriously because they’re currently in shambles, but how could The Fifth Estate miss it?  Indeed, why choose to make the federal immigration minister the focus of its winding-up hard-question interview when it is clear, and I mean CRYSTAL FREAKING PEPSI CLEAR, that the key failure is one of provincial policy?

The answer, I suspect, is that The Fifth Estate is one of those CBC shows with a “national mandate”.  And so, while this story was fundamentally about certain PPP arrangements in Greater Toronto which are not especially representative of the rest of the country, they had to make out like it was a national story. And heck, it isn’t even representative of actual Toronto colleges.  If I were Humber College, I’d be  furious about Mark Kelly using the Lakeshore campus as a backdrop for the intro to a show talking about a set of atrocious events, PRECISELY NONE OF WHICH were associated with Humber.  I mean, really.

(Also, for some reason, the show does a drive-by smearing of Waterloo-based recruitment aggregator ApplyBoard, mainly because it does not differentiate between dodgy agents using ApplyBoard as a platform to submit their students’ documents and agents actually working for ApplyBoard.  But – full disclosure – HESA is working with ApplyBoard on a project at the moment, so take that observation with whatever-sized grain of salt you wish).

To be clear: whatever its failings, the show gets two big things right.  First, there are some really nasty things happening in the PPP colleges around Toronto.  Some of us have been warning about the reputational danger these institutions pose for quite awhile, and it’s long past time both the federal and provincial governments got their act together and regulated international education and international recruitment as if quality mattered (that they do not do so already is a complete disgrace).  Second, there is an ethical element to recruitment that a lot of institutions have missed: what might be acceptable in terms of recruitment tactics when dealing with rich international students whose family wealth makes high international fees easily affordable (as is the case with a lot of East Asian students who have come to Canada) and who are likely to return to their home countries later, are much less acceptable when applied with poor international students (mainly from Punjab) whose families are mortgaging everything in order for a shot at getting their kids Canadian citizenship.  These are important points that need to be front and center in the policy debate, and good on them for doing so.

But at the same time: boy howdy, the show missed a lot and unjustly left the impression that the bad apples were representative of the whole.  Maybe that’s just how media works: but if so, that’s all the more reason the federal and provincial governments should take regulation of the international student sector more seriously than they currently do.

Source: That Fifth Estate Episode

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.   


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