July 21, 2024

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How Canada’s foreign-student boom is creating a host of problems

Deepali Verma, a student from India, says that International students are upset over the treatment that current and upcoming foreign-enrolled students are receiving at Cape Breton University.Carolina Andrade/The Globe and Mail

Deepali Verma is nearing the end of her studies at Cape Breton University. She has taken just one class on campus.

Instead of going to lecture halls, she and hundreds of her peers in the university’s post-baccalaureate diploma programs have attended classes at a Cineplex movie theatre, before nightly showings of Top Gun: Maverick and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

The university has increased its intake of foreign students – so much, and so quickly, that it has run out of space on campus. During the recent fall semester, 90 courses in the post-baccalaureate programs were held at Cineplex, compared with 56 on campus and 20 online. About 2,680 students were enrolled in those programs. All but two were international students, and the vast majority – 86 per cent – came from India.

Ms. Verma, who is from New Delhi, is paying more than $27,000 in tuition and fees for her two-year education in business analytics. She isn’t pleased with the Cineplex arrangement. “I would say it’s disgusting,” she said.

That’s not the extent of students’ frustrations. Every day on social media, there are desperate pleas for housing in Sydney, N.S., a sleepy town of 31,000 that is trying to absorb a spike of newcomers caused by the university’s increased admissions. Quite often, incoming students days away from arriving in Canada still don’t know where they’ll live. Others complain about a public transit system that is buckling under rapid growth in ridership.

And these troubles are not unique to this corner of the Maritimes. Across the country, postsecondary schools have dramatically ramped up their admissions of foreign students, creating knock-on effects for their communities.

This has led to accusations that colleges and universities are gorging on international student fees while turning a blind eye to local challenges. Some critics are saying schools need to be reined in.

“You’re getting a lot of localized stresses that come from the fact that institutions don’t seem to care where their students live,” said Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, a consulting firm. “They don’t care about the housing problems faced by the local community. They’re acting like bad neighbours.”

Colleges and universities control a major chunk of population growth. At the end of 2021, there were more than 620,000 study permit holders in Canada from abroad. Before the pandemic, which led to temporary border restrictions, their ranks jumped by 434,000 people over the course of a decade. That’s about the population of Halifax.

There is a simple explanation for the explosion: money.

Government funding of postsecondary schools has not increased in inflation-adjusted terms in nearly 15 years, while domestic enrolments have peaked, according to a recent report from Higher Education Strategy Associates. That has turned international students into a crucial, and expanding, source of revenue.

The average undergraduate tuition for international students at Canadian universities has nearly doubled over the past 15 years, after adjustments for inflation. Foreign students now pay five times more than their domestic peers; it used to be three times more.

“There is no sign yet that Canadian institutions are pricing themselves out of the market,” the report says.

It helps that colleges and universities are an integral part of the immigration pipeline. After graduation, foreign students can get multiyear work permits, which help them acquire Canadian job experience that is valuable in Canada’s points-based system for economic immigrants.

The eventual goal, for many students, is to gain permanent residency. And the federal government wants a lot more immigrants. Its goal is to admit 500,000 permanent residents annually by 2025. The country brought in slightly more than 400,000 last year. Around 150,000 of them had started their journeys in Canada as international students.

However, unlike the permanent residency program, there are no targets for study permit holders. Postsecondary schools can admit as many foreign students as they wish. Ontario colleges are notable for jacking up admissions numbers, Mr. Usher said.

“Can this be done better? Yes,” he said. “But it means actually not letting every institution decide for itself, whenever it wants to increase these numbers. It’s untenable.”

Around 21,000 beds will be added to student residences in the 24 largest domestic markets by 2025, according to a report from real estate consultants Cushman & Wakefield, published earlier this year. At recent rates of admissions growth, that would cover just a portion of the incoming wave of students.

This pushes more students into the private rental market, where they compete with other residents for a limited number of housing units in supply-starved cities.

“It’s not just international students having trouble finding housing. That has an effect on the local market,” Mr. Usher said. “And it’s a tax that institutions are placing specifically on low-income families in those communities.”

Ms. Verma moved from Sydney to Halifax in the fall semester, as part of a required co-op term. Now she can’t find a room back in Sydney. She may commute – a one-way drive of five hours or so – to her final two classes.

“There is literally no space out there. I can’t even express how we are feeling. It’s really terrible,” she said.

Gurwinder Singh, who has also taken the bulk of his recent classes at Cineplex, likens the situation to paying for an iPhone but getting a knock-off. “It just felt like discrimination against the international students,” he said.

Mr. Singh will be making the same journey as Ms. Verma for his final class. He is moving to Halifax with his wife, who can’t find a job in Sydney. He also hopes to find a job in Halifax, and wants to limit his time away. “I’m not going to lose extra dollars” by staying overnight near the university, he said.

Sara Asalya, founder of the Newcomer Students’ Association, said “the burden of high tuition fees” is the number-one concern she hears about from international students. They often work multiple jobs to make ends meet.

The federal government is making it easier for them to work. This fall, it temporarily removed a limit on their job hours. Now international students enrolled in full-time studies can work more than 20 hours a week off campus. The government has said the change will help employers, who have complained about a lack of workers.

“These government decisions are really coming at a time when the government is pressured to look at the labour shortage, more than looking at the actual experience of these students,” Ms. Asalya said.

“I don’t think we can continue to increase the intake, and lift the limit of hours, without building a proper infrastructure to support these students.”

Gordon MacInnis, Cape Breton University’s vice-president of finance and operations, said the school is dealing with a sudden rush of students, because many had to postpone their studies owing to pandemic-related border restrictions. The university had nearly 4,000 international students in the fall semester, an increase of roughly 1,600 (or 68 per cent) from the previous year, according to preliminary survey data from the Association of Atlantic Universities. Foreign students accounted for 72 per cent of CBU’s full-time enrolments, and their ranks have grown by more than 3,000 (or 343 per cent) in five years.

Even so, the fall spike caught the university off guard. “They all showed up more than we were anticipating,” Mr. MacInnis said. “This bubble will be with us for about two years,” he added, because foreign students are mostly enrolled in two-year programs.

Mr. MacInnis said CBU is not the first university to rent out movie theatres for lectures. It has spent money to retrofit those spaces for classes, he noted, and a shuttle bus will run between Cineplex and campus, starting in January.

Still, these are “stopgap measures,” he said. The goal is to invest in school infrastructure and eventually “repatriate” its staff and students to the main campus.

Starting in May, CBU will be limiting its intake of students in the post-baccalaureate programs to ease some of the pressures caused by the recent uptick in enrolments.

Nova Scotia recently announced it is investing $5-million in a CBU project to build hundreds of housing units in Sydney, although the development is years away from completion. In the interim, many students are feeling conflicted about their choice of university. Ms. Verma was initially smitten with the school and Sydney, which was so peaceful compared to her native New Delhi.

But her recent struggles – in particular, with finding a home – have left a bitter taste.

“I won’t recommend anybody to come to CBU right now, because I don’t want people to suffer or go through the same things that we are going through,” she said. “It’s really hard here.”