As director of international education at Langara College, Gordon McNeil knows well that foreign students are important to B.C.’s economy.
So last fall, when Premier Christy Clark laid out an ambitious target of increasing the number of these visitors by 50 percent over four years, McNeil assumed that everyone would be excited to take them all in. International students were worth $1.2 billion to the economy in 2010. In these hard times, the province would probably welcome some more.
However, there’s a bit of a problem for Langara.
“We’re sort of scratching our heads: where are we going to put them?” McNeil told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.
With an enrollment of at least 1,100 foreign students, the one-campus college in Vancouver would have trouble taking more. “There’s only so much room here,” McNeil said.
Although McNeil doesn’t know the exact capacity of other institutions, he said that government planners need to consider another issue: how to bring more of those international students to areas outside Metro Vancouver.
“People don’t want to go to a small town, even though it has advantages,” McNeil said. “Small town means everybody there speaks English, but as you know, Vancouver is where all the immigrants land as well, right? So they have their food and they have their language and they are comfortable. And parents like that idea.”
There were about 94,000 foreign students in B.C. in 2009-10, according to figures compiled last year by economist Roslyn Kunin. Eighty-three percent, or 78,100, were concentrated in the Lower Mainland southwest region. The remaining 17 percent spread out through the Vancouver Island, coastal, southern Interior, and northern regions.
Kunin pulled these figures for the B.C. Council for International Education, a government-funded nonprofit that promotes the province as an international destination for learning.
Like Langara’s McNeil, BCCIE executive director Randall Martin talks about capacity. The 50-percent increase targeted by Clark means about 11,000 more foreign students each year over four years.
Martin noted that although there is room for the students in the province, there are certain “very, very high-demand programs” that are more appealing than others.
“If a family is going to invest heavily in their child’s education overseas, they often want it to be in a very practical program, like an engineering program or business or computing,” Martin told the Straight by phone. “We don’t have a large population of students who want to come over here from overseas and spend five years to study philosophy, for example. They should. I would love that, but they don’t. It’s a very pragmatic population coming for language studies or career opportunities.”
Figures gathered by Kunin show that there were 43,000 international students in public and private language schools in 2010. Some 39,000 attended public and private postsecondary institutions. About 12,000 went to public and independent elementary and secondary schools.
Foreign students are also city-oriented. “They talk about MTV: Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver,” Martin explained. “While I would love for more students to be going to Kelowna and Nanaimo and Prince George and Kamloops, and some of these institutions are doing very well, that takes a little bit more work. We have to teach them more about British Columbia, not just about Vancouver. One of the problems of reaching this market is supporting the growth of regional markets and, in doing so, supporting the growth of high-demand programs, increasing capacity in business and computing and engineering.”
The B.C. Liberal government previously announced that it would release its international-education strategy before the end of 2011. It has yet to produce this document.
Minister of Advanced Education Naomi Yamamoto didn’t grant an interview with the Straight before deadline.
As the government prepares its international-education strategy, policymakers may also want to consider the concerns of foreign students like Rahul Rajanala. A political-science student at SFU, Rajanala is the spokesperson of the university’s International Students Group. According to him, high tuition fees are one of their big issues. “International students have to pay three times more,” Rajanala told the Straight in a phone interview.
Zach Crispin, chair of the Canadian Federation of Students in B.C., pointed out that the B.C. government hasn’t announced any plan to increase funding for postsecondary education. “These students are being brought into Canada sort of just to squeeze them for as much tuition fees as possible,” Crispin told the Straight by phone.
However, BCCIE’s Martin pointed out that charging full freight for the education of foreigners gives learning institutions new resources with which to expand their spaces. But he added that the question now is whether or not these schools can grow their capacity to accommodate the huge increase in foreign students within the short time being planned by the province.
In a phone interview, Kunin told the Straight that Clark’s 50-percent target is a huge number. “It may take some time to do,” she said.
Langara’s McNeil knows his school can’t do it soon enough. “There is no building-expansion plan that’s going to take place within the time period that the premier is talking about,” he said.
That means Langara is going to miss out on the new business that may come. But McNeil isn’t troubled: “No one’s crying the blues here because we’re doing so well already.”