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International student applications are booming

But even though B.C. remains a top destination, some international students are wary of subsidizing Canadian higher education
Chris Bottrill, vice-president, international, at Capilano University said B.C. remains a top destination for international students

New international study permits for students coming to B.C. experienced their slowest annual growth in 2022 since at least 2015, excluding the massive one-year drop during 2020, when the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought travel and in-person studies to a standstill. 

But even so, applications from international students for the upcoming school year are through the roof, according to Randall Martin, executive director of the B.C. Council for International Education. 

“Even Prince George and places like that that often have troubles attracting or retaining international students are just booming right now,” Martin said.

The number of new international study permits issued for B.C. last year grew by only 0.36 per cent compared with 2021. By comparison, the next slowest growth year was in 2019, when permits increased by 5.5 per cent.

But slowing growth in new study permits is not necessarily a sign that international interest in B.C. education is waning.

Chris Bottrill, vice-president, international, at Capilano University said B.C. remains a top destination for international students. He added that many of the reasons to attend post-secondary school in Canada pre-pandemic still exist today: A safe environment, the quality of education and good job opportunities among them.

Bottrill’s comments are supported by the findings of an international student survey completed by the Canadian Bureau for International Education. The survey found the safeness of the country and the quality of the education as the top two reasons students chose Canada. 

The No. 3 factor was the country’s international reputation as an inclusive nation for immigrants. The influence of this, Bottrill says, has waned in recent years.

Whatever the reason for selecting Canada – or B.C. – as an education destination, what remains consistent is the post-secondary sector’s need to attract international students. The business case for B.C. colleges and universities relies both culturally and economically on students from abroad. 

In 2023, international students can expect to pay more than four times as much in tuition as domestic students, according to Statistics Canada. And in 2018, the most recent year for which there is data, international students contributed $22.3 billion to the Canadian economy, $4.7 billion of which made its way to B.C., according to data from the Government of Canada. 

Beyond the high-level economic benefits they bring to B.C., international students help improve the overall educational experience for all students at post-secondary institutions. 

The intercultural learning opportunities that come with a diverse student body are rewarding, said Bottrill.

“International students are critical to the educational system in British Columba and post-secondary especially,” he said.

It is no surprise, then, that the Canadian government has made it a priority to work with the sector to grow the international student population in Canada. 

Doing so won’t be without competition – from Pacific U.S. states, Australia and New Zealand, particularly in attracting students from Asia.

Australia is heavily competing with Canada for international students, said Martin. He says that the country has put a target on Canada’s back and wants back the international students Canada was able to poach when Australia closed its doors during COVID. 

Competition from the U.S. is less strong, Martin said, because the country lacks a unified national strategy to attract international learners. 

But some are wary of countries’ efforts to attract international students, and the significant amounts of tuition they pay. 

WeiChun Kua, an organizer with the international student group Migrant Students United at Simon Fraser University, said that while Canada remains a desirable destination for prospective students, the attractiveness of Canada fades when students arrive and are confronted by expensive tuition, expensive housing and the expensive cost of living. 

“One issue I think the universities need to address to really help international students is the post-secondary education funding model – because it’s not sustainable,” said Kua. “It’s just relying on and exploiting international students to subsidize post-secondary education in Canada overall.”

Kua says that there are things that institutions could do to help mitigate the financial burden faced by incoming students, such as providing additional student housing, like Capilano University did last year. 

For some international students, Kua says that there’s not much they can do to deal with high and rising costs once they arrive in B.C. 

“It really depends on each student’s circumstances. Some people are just forced to kind of adapt, take on more jobs, figure out a way to get more money. And some people just can’t afford it anymore and they have to terminate their study program because they can’t afford to pay for tuition fees,” he said.

Outside of leaving school or absorbing unexpected costs, Kua says there’s not much international students can do. And even with the high level of competition B.C.’s post-secondary institutions face from their counterparts in the Asia-Pacific, it’s not easy for international students to leave one country for another.

Martin said he sympathizes with the high costs of living and tuition paid by international students, but noted that Canadian tuition costs are better than those competitors abroad. 

He added that Ottawa subsidizes education for those who have paid into the Canadian tax system, i.e. domestic students.

This article was first published in BIV's print edition. For first access to print content, become a BIV subscriber.