(Editor's note: UBC vice provost and associate vice president Angela Redish has written a letter in response to this commentary.)
As Arvind Gupta succeeds Stephen Toope as UBC’s next president, the university gets another administrator focused on increasing UBC’s global standing. Canadian “universities should see ourselves not as not as good as Princeton or Harvard, but that we can be better than Princeton or Harvard and the students will choose us over those institutions,” Gupta told the Vancouver Sun. In the same March 12 article, UBC board of governors chair John Montalbano thanked Toope for “his ability to attract and retain outstanding talent” which have “further solidified UBC’s global standing”.
Here’s why UBC will never be as good as Princeton or Harvard. It has to do with the very thing Toope, Montalbano, and Gupta say will increase international standing: recruitment of international students. Ivy League admissions policies differ greatly from those of UBC, in terms of financial aid and country of origin. Princeton’s admissions website states that it makes “no distinctions between international and domestic students when considering financial need” and has a policy of “meeting financial need in full for admitted students”. It’s true: the average financial aid award for the class of 2017 was US$41,450.
In terms of which countries those students are coming from, the Harvard International Office website gives us a breakdown of the freshman class of 2013-14. There are 722 students from China and 780 from Canada and the U.K. It doesn’t take a social scientist to answer the question: Do the proportion of British and American international students at UBC outnumber the international students from China?
International students are not choosing UBC because they think it is as good as Princeton or Harvard. They are choosing UBC because it has a higher acceptance rate for international students with lower English skills, provided they can pay. (UBC’s minimum TOEFL score is 550; Princeton and Harvard require or invite applicants to send in their TOEFL scores, but do not specify what the minimum score is.)
Now UBC is setting up Vantage College, which will take in international students with lower TOEFL scores—if they complete freshman year at Vantage College learning academic English. The program fee is $30,000. Add student fees, health insurance, books, housing, and personal expenses, and you get $51,700 for the first year alone. International tuition for the remaining three years is $20,000 to $30,000 depending on the program, in addition to all the other expenses.
As for financial support, the UBC webpage “Awards for International Students” only mentions two: up to 40 awards of $3,000 each for continuing international undergraduate students and a $1,000 award for international Latino students.
How do these recruitment and financial aid policies impact the experiences of international undergraduates at UBC? As part of an interdisciplinary team of sociology and TESL (teaching English as a second language) graduate students exploring international students’ perceptions of integration and discrimination, I found the following through preliminary qualitative interview research.
1. If you ask Asian students how education in Asia compares to education in Canada, the low English proficiency students will corroborate the view of Asian education as passive rote learning, as this often-heard consensual stereotype is all they know how to say in English with regard to this matter. In contrast, the higher proficiency students will offer critical perspectives about both education systems.
2. The lower proficiency students will unanimously agree that Canada is a wonderfully friendly nation and they have integrated very well, but when asked about the percentage of their friends who are not from their home country, and about the extracurricular clubs they have joined, their answers indicate otherwise. The higher proficiency students will talk about their many intercultural friendships, but mention how hard it is to get English speakers to open up if one does not speak English well.
3. Only higher proficiency students seem aware of racial discrimination against groups other than their own, e.g. First Nations students.
4. Few international students, regardless of English proficiency, profess definite plans to stay in Canada after graduation.
To imply that high school seniors choose UBC over Harvard or Princeton, based simply on what they think about the universities, denies many real-world factors that influence student mobility. Moreover, international undergraduates at UBC seem pretty well aware, by third year, of their real chances in the Canadian job market (which aren’t all that good for Canadians either).
If migration outcomes don’t matter since international students already contribute for four years to campus life—by engaging in critical discussions and leading social justice initiatives that connect people from different backgrounds at UBC—we might ask how they can be expected to do so unless they have strong English language skills.
I urge President Gupta to occasionally take a break from internationalization initiatives to closely examine the experiences of UBC’s international students. If he wants UBC to be the equal of Princeton and Harvard by providing an education that will “prepare our students to take on the challenges in this fast-evolving world, getting them ready to approach whatever gets thrown at them” and “to be ready with an open mind, a discerning eye and flexibility of thought”, the answer lies in the creation of more support in terms of financial aid, and a policy of letting in only those students whom the university can support with its current services.
If this is too idealistic a goal, then we might aim for improved academic and social counseling, and a curriculum that is critical of current Canadian race relations as well as past history (e.g. residential schooling, the Japanese internment), and more Alma Mater Society funding for student groups that operate in languages other than English. Gupta must make UBC not only more internationalized, but more multicultural and multilingual. This is the only way to tap the talents of international students—who were high-achievers in their countries in terms of academics, service, and leadership but need support before they can play those same roles at UBC—and make the university as great as he says they will.