An aging population, declining enrollment, and sinking budgets are forcing school districts around British Columbia to sell public education to an increasing number of international customers. Debora Choi, 18, is one of those customers.
Choi will graduate from Kitsilano secondary school this spring with plans to study business or accounting at UBC. Articulate, bright, and fluent in English, this Korean-born youth could be the model international student. She’s been living with her uncle for five years, has no plans to return to her native country to live, and is intent on settling in Vancouver.
“The Korean style of education is very strict and even oppressive. Korean students are under a lot of pressure,” Choi says. “I wanted to come to Canada to study English, and I had family here who could support me.”
Compared to Korea, Choi calls education in Canada “free and open”. At first, the language barrier was isolating; however, having other Korean students among her peers eased the transition. She says the worst experiences she’s faced as a student here have been the occasional racial slurs tossed out in the school hallways. Other than that, Choi has found her home.
Irena Eskulicova, a 19-year-old Czech student, is enrolled at Highland secondary in Comox on Vancouver Island and is less enamoured with life in Canada, finding society here insular and friendships more difficult to build. However, she values the education. This motivated student is here to improve her English, graduate from high school, and pursue an engineering degree in B.C. or Alberta.
“In Canada, they invest more money in education than they do back home,” Eskulicova says in a Comox coffee shop.
Both Choi and Eskulicova belong to a tide of full- and part-time foreign students, some 15,000 strong, who are helping to fill elementary and high-school classrooms in B.C. International students tend to come from affluent families. They pay between $12,000 and $14,000 per year in tuition, bringing in more than $110 million annually to school districts. Though they represent less than three percent of the overall K-to-12 school population and generate just a fraction of the $4.5 billion that will be spent by government this school year, their numbers are expected to grow.
Like a lot of school districts, Vancouver is taking a business approach to international student recruitment. Domestic enrollment in the Vancouver school district has been in free fall, dropping from 57,575 students in 1997 to 51,901 in 2010. The district blames a greying demographic, families with fewer kids, and a lack of affordable housing in an urban district where the average home price has soared to almost $1 million. Given that Ministry of Education funding is doled out on a per-student basis, Vancouver school administrators are feeling the financial pinch. Facing an $18-million deficit in the 2010-11 school year, the district said in a fall 2010 news release that it plans to “increase its own revenue sources, such as income derived from foreign students”. There are currently 915 foreign students enrolled in Vancouver schools, from 16 different countries, including Korea, Japan, Taiwan, China, Thailand, Singapore, Brazil, Germany, and Mexico. Their tuition fees generate more than $11 million, up from $8.3 million in the 2001-02 school year, says Barb Onstad, manager of the district’s international-education program.
“We do have declining enrollment in many of our schools, so, ideally, we’d like to recruit more international students to fully utilize our facilities,” Onstad says, adding that international students enrich the classroom environment and their tuition fees help pay the salaries of 45 teachers and maintain ESL and other support services.
That’s why school districts around the province are dispatching administrators on regular forays to international education expos and fairs in South America, Asia, and Europe. Opportunities for student recruitment abound in countries like Vietnam and China, which have rapidly growing middle classes, youthful populations, and parents who want their kids to learn English. However, there is stiff competition for these students among anglophone nations like the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, all with similarly aging populations and public-school enrollment crises. Demographic projections for B.C. are adding another impetus to the effort to attract foreign students: according to a 2010 provincial government report called Skills for Growth, 1.1 million jobs will open here between now and 2020; however, our public schools will graduate just 650,000 young people.
To Randall Martin, executive director of the British Columbia Council for International Education (BCCIE), B.C.’s demographic shift presents a huge business opportunity. In 2009, the organization, which has been around since 1990, broadened its mandate beyond postsecondary and private schools in an effort “to advance the international education interests of the entire province, including public postsecondary, public K-12, private postsecondary, independent schools, and language schools”, he says.
“We look at international education as a distinct economic sector,” Martin says, “but this is also about schools staying open and teachers being employed.”
The BCCIE receives $1 million in annual funding from the Ministry of Regional Economic and Skills Development to help coordinate recruiting efforts among different school boards and help them navigate the huge global market in international education that Martin says is worth US$2.2 trillion. Japan once provided the largest pool of foreign students to B.C. When that Asian tiger’s economy collapsed in the 1990s, Korea supplanted Japan. More recently, China has assumed top spot. Like any business-minded institution, Martin says, B.C. schools need to think strategically. Rather than focusing student recruitment on one region, he says, they need to spread their efforts to developing countries around the globe as a hedge against economic collapse in one particular region.
“You have to think businesslike and spread your eggs around in different countries,” Martin says.
However, this free-market spin on public education isn’t pleasing everybody. According to the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, there are downsides to this commodification of B.C.’s education system that get overlooked in the rush to attract wealthy foreign students. BCTF president Susan Lambert says the profit motive that underpins the international-student program is tipping the scales in a public-school system already struggling with imbalance.
“It is exacerbating inequities between the ”˜have’ districts and ”˜have-not’ districts,” Lambert says.
Analysis by the BCTF shows that in 2006, 58 percent of the province’s $110 million in international-student tuition was generated in just six Lower Mainland districts out of a B.C. total of 92: Langley ($6.7 million), Surrey ($10.7 million), Vancouver ($11.3 million), Coquitlam ($15.1 million), North Vancouver ($6.9 million), and West Vancouver ($8.9 million). In the same year, the Fort Nelson school district generated $11,000 from a single foreign student.
“These urban districts are simply more attractive to international students,” Lambert says.
In West Vancouver, foreign students help pay for rich course offerings like French immersion, computer immersion, and several sports academies. Lambert says this would be great if similar opportunities could be made available in the “have-not” districts, but that is not the case. To be fair, school districts are not totally to blame for this growing inequity, Lambert says; the provincial government encouraged an entrepreneurial approach to the recruitment of foreign students with the School Amendment Act of 2002, or Bill 34, making it possible to raise funds through for-profit school-district “business companies”.
However, a 2009 study published in the McGill Journal of Education suggests that Bill 34 may actually be eroding B.C.’s public education system. Researchers Gerald Fallon and Jerald Paquette, in their report entitled Introducing a Market Element Into the Funding Mechanism of Public Education in British Columbia: A Critical Policy Analysis of the School Amendment Act, 2002, found a “lack of accountability of school district business companies, increased fiscal inequity among school districts and a greater responsiveness to the needs of a globally rather than a locally situated community of students”.
Beyond fiscal matters, the BCTF has questions regarding who is caring for these foreign students, many of whom are sent to Canada without parental guidance at a very young age.
“The whole issue of parenting and who’s responsible for these kids is a huge concern for us,” Lambert says.
Some foreign students, like Debora Choi of Kitsilano secondary, live with relatives. Others, like Irena Eskulicova in Comox, reside in a home-stay arrangement with a host family. (As a condition of her stay, she must respect a 10 p.m. curfew on weeknights and a midnight curfew on weekends or face being sent home.) Either model of outsourced parenting works reasonably well in most cases, but there is evidence that some visiting students are not getting the guidance most would expect for school-aged youths.
Sabrina Wong, an associate professor with UBC’s Centre for Health Services and Policy Research, analyzed data from the province’s 2003 B.C. Adolescent Health Survey and released her findings last summer. They show that a quarter of female high-school students from Asia living in B.C. without parents reported experiencing sexual abuse. In May of 2010, a 19-year-old female student from China was rescued from a downtown bawdy house, raising further questions about guardianship. Such stories, though rare, are part of a larger problem with oversight and accountability in the international-student program, Lambert says.
“The reason we have school districts spending money to recruit students is for revenue. There is no educational purpose, and that’s why we feel this profit motive runs counter to the philosophy of our public education system,” Lambert says.