Patti Bacchus: China tensions could be costly for school districts—and then some

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      Recent developments in Canada’s relationship with China could have wide-ranging—and potentially devastating—economic impacts for B.C. school boards and postsecondary institutions, if an irritated China decides to pull the plug on allowing its citizens to attend Canadian schools and universities.

      It’s a possibility we ignore at our peril.

      That’s one more reason the arrest and detention of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, who is now in Vancouver awaiting extradition proceedings to the U.S., and reports that two Canadians are being detained by the Chinese government, should have us worried. It should also have us rethinking the wisdom of relying so heavily on fee-paying Chinese students to help fund our cash-strapped public schools and universities.

      I got thinking about this after reading a report in the Tri-City News by Diane Strandberg, with the headline “Chinese anger could hurt international partnerships”. She’s darn right it could, and it could cost us dearly. Strandberg’s story focuses on the affects the current skirmish could have on the Coquitlam school district, which has gone all in on its relationship with China. (I wrote about that a year ago.)

      Coquitlam’s not the only school district counting on those tuition fees. The Vancouver school board (VSB) also looks to its growing international student program each year to see if it can attract more students to fill its ever-present funding gaps and surplus seats in its schools. Many other B.C. school districts do the same.

      International student fees add up to about $30 million a year for the VSB, in exchange to providing education programs to close to 1,800 foreign students. I don’t even want to think about the drastic cuts the VSB would have to make if a big chunk of that revenue abruptly disappeared.

      As a trustee, I voted on several VSB budgets that targeted increased international enrollment to make up for funding shortfalls. Those students come from all over the world, but the biggest portion—by a long shot—comes from China.

      Each year I cautioned VSB managers that relying on that revenue was risky and made the district vulnerable to political and economic shifts that were beyond our control. I also questioned if we were exploiting foreign students for economic gain, and whether it was in their best interests to come to Canada, and be away from their families, at such a young age.

      Teachers cautioned VSB trustees that many international students weren’t getting the support they needed here, academically or emotionally, and that increasing their numbers was straining the already-stretched resources in schools.

      Local parents complained kids couldn’t get into neighbourhood schools, or the courses they needed, because seats were taken by international students, who pay tuition fees to attend local B.C. public schools.

      Others worried that school course offerings were being skewed to attract international students, instead of meeting the needs of domestic students.

      Despite all those concerns, the lure of foreign tuition dollars was too strong to resist.

      How big is the international student business? Very. Very. Big.

      When students come to B.C. public schools, they pay school districts tuition fees, which are usually in the $14,000 to $15,000 a year range. That’s about double the approximately $7,500 annual, per-student grant the B.C. government provides school districts.

      Aside from renting out space in their buildings, school districts have few ways to generate revenue on their own, aside what the provincial government provides them via annual funding grants. Enrolling international students has become an increasingly popular way to fill empty seats and bring in much-needed money.

      Every student who comes needs a place to stay, and for students in the K-12 system, that usually means paying a family to stay in their home. That can be a healthy income stream for those struggling to pay rent or mortgages in Metro Vancouver. The students’ parents may come to help them settle in, or visit them during the school year, and also contribute to the economy while they’re here. Students shop, eat in restaurants, and may even buy cars and other expensive items. It all adds up.

      While significant, international student expenditures at the K-12 level pale in comparison to postsecondary. At the university level, the sky’s the limit, apparently, when it comes to what international students from China are paying for housing. When they’re here, their families may come and visit, possibly staying in hotels, eating in restaurants, shopping in our stores, and renting cars or using taxis. They may buy cars for their kids who are attending school here, or even homes.

      Students go to restaurants, set up phone accounts, shop, and do all the things, and spend all the money, that anyone who lives here would do, and possibly even more, if they come from affluent families.

      Don’t just take my word for it. A 2017 report prepared for RBC says 132,000 Chinese citizens were studying in Canada in 2016 (in postsecondary institutions) and accounted for nearly a third of Canada’s international students.

      A 2016 report on the economic impact of international education in Canada by Roslyn Kunin & Associates says the “total annual expenditure of international students including their visiting families and friends, contributed almost $11.4 billion to economic activities in Canada in 2014. This translates to $9.3 billion in GDP contribution to the Canadian economy. This $9.3 billion figure includes $6.7 billion contribution to GDP in direct value-added associated with tuition, food, and accommodation, and $2.6 billion in indirect value-added associated with firms supplying goods and services to the education services and other sectors.” 

      That’s pretty staggering stuff.

      Why worry?

      Remember the last teachers’ strike, in 2014? It started in June, stretched through the summer, and then delayed the start of the 2014–15 school year. Then education minister Peter Fassbender wasn’t budging from his “affordability zone” and some suspected the government was hoping the prolonged dispute would annoy parents enough to win their support for another heavy-handed, legislated contract, or some such.

      But then lo and behold, Premier Christy Clark rode into the rescue and a deal was made. Just like that.

      Well, not quite. I chaired the Vancouver School Board (VSB) at the time and had a front-row seat in the various machinations going on at the time.

      The chatter I was hearing was that the Chinese government’s representative in B.C. made it clear to the B.C. government that if the strike wasn’t resolved, China would consider cutting back on the number of visas issued to its citizens to study in Canada. They would not tolerate having the students who’d come here from China, and paid tuition to school boards, wait idly at their homestays in September while government couldn’t reach a deal with the striking teachers.

      It was chilling to think the pleas of B.C. families to settle the dispute fell on deaf ears, but a threat from a foreign government may have been enough to spur the Clark government to act.

      I don’t know if that’s exactly how it played out, and I probably never will, but it’s a plausible scenario and one that we should be concerned about. Our governments should be working for us, not for foreign governments.

      It wouldn’t take much for the Chinese government to announce it’s reducing, or even cancelling, the permission it grants its citizens to come to Canada to study. We’ve allowed ourselves to become addicted to the revenue those students bring, and now we’re economically vulnerable to the decisions of their government. 

      At the very least, this skirmish with China should be a wake-up call that has us rethinking our dependence on foreign students’ tuition fees to fund our education systems.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.