North America’s foreign-student system is no longer a humanitarian endeavour to lift up the planet’s best and brightest, and support the developing world.
Instead, it’s become a commercial competition full of marketing rhetoric, which is creating chaos in higher education.
That’s what the West’s leading experts in international education told me 10 years ago.
They were describing how governments and post-secondary institutions were adopting an increasingly cynical attitude toward foreign students.
Philip Altbach, Hanneke Teekens and Jane Knight were ahead of their time in lamenting how international education was turning into a “cash cow” for public and private universities and colleges in the U.S. and especially Canada, where there are at least eight times more per capita than in the U.S.
While the concept of international education continues to have upsides, it’s now becoming obvious to many in Canada that the foreign-student system is creating hard times, especially for students from abroad. Even the Liberal government, long in denial, is starting to admit it.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government acknowledges it has pumped up the number of foreign students in Canada to, officially, 900,000. That compares to 225,000 in 2013. And experts say Ottawa’s number is a serious undercount.
The Liberals are still not necessarily admitting the obvious: That governments and post-secondary institutions are addicted to foreign-student spending and fees, which are four times higher than those of domestic students. Ten years ago, foreign students brought $8 billion into Canada, now Ottawa estimates it’s up to $30 billion.
The main problem, however, that has suddenly drawn more attention to foreign students is the out-of-control cost of housing, particularly renting.
International students, say housing analysts, are increasing competition for places to live. The average rent for a one-bedroom in Canada has jumped to a worrying $1,800, according to Rentals.ca. Vancouver is the most extreme in the country, at a devastating average of $3,013. A one-bedroom in Toronto is $2,592.
Foreign students are an increasing factor in such expensive housing — and it’s hurting the study visa holders themselves, who, according to both social media and the mainstream media, are increasingly feeling taken advantage of.
Even Canada’s housing minister, Sean Fraser, last month used the word exploited. And he finally admitted universities and colleges are bringing in far more students than they could possibly provide housing for.
That was before Benjamin Tal, chief economist for the CIBC Capital Markets, told Liberal cabinet ministers the government is dangerously undercounting the number of temporary residents, particularly foreign students, in Canada.
While the government, and Statistics Canada, state there are more than one million non-permanent residents in Canada, Tal’s calculations show there are at least one million more missing from the count. “Housing demand is stronger than what official numbers are telling you and that’s why we’re approaching a zero vacancy rate.”
The government’s calculations, Tal said, have ignored that many foreign workers and students don’t leave the country when their visas expire. They stay on in hopes of applying to become immigrants. Census methods for surveying foreign students, he added, are misleading.
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Giacomo Ladas of Rentals.ca says, “International students do add pressure to the rental market,” even while he emphasized it’s not their fault.
“There’s such a supply and demand issue in the rental market right now and they add to this imbalance. The study permits for international students have increased by 75 per cent in the last five years. So, that’s a huge influx of people coming in and nowhere to put them.”
Delegates at a recent Union of B.C. Municipalities’ housing summit heard how rapidly foreign students and other non-permanent residents are adding to demand for housing.
The number of non-permanent residents and newcomers to Metro Vancouver has in five years almost doubled, delegates were told. Foreign students and other recent arrivals own eight per cent of all homes in Metro Vancouver, and account for 25 per cent of renters.
Canada’s housing minister received a lot of media attention in August when he responded to a reporter’s direct question by saying he wouldn’t rule out a cap on international students.
But since then both he and Immigration Minister Marc Miller have backtracked, and Trudeau has warned not to “blame” foreign students.
Miller admitted Canada’s “very lucrative” foreign student system “comes with some perverse effects, some fraud in the system, some people taking advantage of what is seen to be a backdoor entry into Canada.”
Whatever the Liberal cabinet is starting to admit in the past month, however, the public would be naive to expect any real reforms.
In addition to anxiety over the housing crisis, many economists also worry international students are being taken advantage of by employers to keep wages down. An earlier StatCan study showed up to one out of three foreign students aren’t attending school.
While some representatives of universities and college, especially private ones, are trying to shut down debate by accusing critics of blaming study visa holders for high housing costs and low wages, the reality is those raising concerns can be seen as standing up for people on study visas.
Many people are aware of a high suicide rate among international students, including alarms raised by funeral homes. The largest cohort of foreign students, by far, now comes from India, and it is often South Asian voices in Canada who are pointing to their victimization, including employer abuse and sexual harassment by landlords.
And Vancouver immigration lawyers such as Richard Kurland and George Lee add the federal government’s decision to allow unlimited international students is setting up many for future immigration disappointment.
Canada is building far too big a pool of people who will be highly qualified for permanent resident status, they say. Not everyone can win the immigration points-system competition, which has an annual cutoff.
The trouble is a lot of vested interests are eager for the foreign-student gravy train to keep chugging along, regardless of the unintended suffering it causes — including for students desperate for a place to live.
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