King’s University College principal David Malloy, pictured, says universities are “very reliant” on international students due to dwindling provincial funding. That makes costs for international students about four times what a domestic student pays. Michael Swan

Universities increasingly go international

  • May 12, 2023

King’s University College principal David Malloy found something more precious than gold on an April trip to India — students.

Malloy signed and strengthened memoranda of understanding with several institutions — elite private high schools and three different universities — that will funnel students to King’s.

“We’re very reliant on international tuition. There’s no doubt about that. I think every university is,” said Malloy,

Provincial funding has been declining for years and universities are making up the difference with tuition from international students — tuition that comes in at slightly above four times the cost to domestic students.

In 2022 there were 807,750 international students in Canada. Most are college rather than university students, and about 40 per cent of the visa holders are from India. Chinese students spend more than $1 billion a year on tuition in Canada. Fees from international students accounted for 37 per cent of the tuition collected in 2019-2020.

In 2021, across Canada, 21 per cent of undergraduate university students and 29 per cent of graduate students were international. Also in 2021, 130,000 former student visa holders became permanent residents. 

Dwindling provincial funding to universities has driven the boom in the international student population. Across Canada provincial funding has dropped from an average of 40.8 per cent of university budgets from 2000 to 2019, to 32.5 per cent in 2020-2021. Over the same period, federal funding increased slightly, from 10.7 per cent to 11.4 per cent of university revenues. International student tuition has risen at twice the speed of domestic tuition fees. In 2009-2010 Canadian universities collected $1.25 billion in tuition from international students. In 2015-2016 it was up to $2.75 billion. By 2021 the international student piggy bank was above $5 billion per year.

Ontario universities are particularly addicted to international tuition fees. The University of Toronto collects more money from international students — which make up more than a quarter of the student body — than it does from the Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities. At the University of St. Michael’s College, the Catholic college federated with the University of Toronto, that claim translates into 1,842 international students and 34.7 per cent of the student population.

“Universities in Ontario really have to scramble to make ends meet. Salaries aren’t going down. Fixed costs aren’t fixed. It’s expensive to run a university,” explained Malloy at King’s.

“As much as I feel this is going to help me in the long run, it is not worth the high level of tuition I paid,” said third-year St. Michael’s College student Kavya Balakrishnan. “I tease my domestic friends that my one year of tuition will pay for your entire degree.”

As Balakrishnan heads into her fourth year with a double major in cell and molecular biology plus health and diseases, she’s not bitter, disappointed or resentful. She’s an enthusiastic member of the St. Mike’s community who volunteers to help out with orientation of new students.

“I would choose St. Mike’s again, absolutely,” she said.

But the financial burden is real.

“My family is not extremely wealthy. We’re well-to-do, but we have our limits,” said the Jamaican international student. “My family has made sacrifices to allow me to come here.”

It was a scholarship that made the U of T tuition pill easier to swallow. Comparison with similar American institutions also made Toronto look like a bargain. Undergraduate tuition at Boston College runs $62,950 (U.S.) a year for international students.

“International students for the last 20, 25 years have been seen as — if not a cash cow, as a supplement to the continuous clawback of provincial funding for education,” said St. Jerome’s University president and vice chancellor Peter Meehan. “We don’t have the philanthropy model they have in most American universities, which is a shame. International students have been seen as closing the gap.”

With approximately 90 per cent of its own students from the domestic pool, St. Jerome’s is an outlier. But the Catholic college at the University of Waterloo welcomes 10,000 students a year from the rest of the university. Those students, many of them international and enrolled in business courses, come to St. Jerome’s for the arts and humanities credits they need to complete their programs.

The push from international students for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and business courses puts pressure on Catholic universities and colleges to cater to the ambitions of international families who are making sacrifices to ensure the financial and career success of their children.

“There is always going to be pressure to offer more quote-unquote relevant courses that cater to those needs,” said Meehan.

But Meehan sees a hunger among international students for what small, Catholic liberal arts colleges have to offer.

“We’re selling two things that the world has a hard time with. One is liberal arts and the other is Catholic identity,” he said.

International students and their parents don’t reject the notion that an education can come with a sense of religious identity and vocation. But to make that offer to international students will require Catholic universities to push back against politicians who can’t see beyond leveraging higher education for immediate, short-term economic goals.

“The whole thing is jobs, jobs, jobs right now. The idea of getting educated, which is the traditional role of the university, that is obscured,” Meehan said. “You see this in the province of Ontario very clearly. Education isn’t really part of it. It’s about job readiness.”

Balakrishnan chose St. Mike’s because she wanted an undergraduate experience that allowed her to grow intellectually, spiritually and socially. Her years spent embedded in a cosmopolitan, international student body have been a good fit.

“I myself am international,” she said. “I’m American (citizen), but I’m ethnically Indian, but I live in Jamaica. So I’ve been international my whole life. That was a very important factor in choosing where I want to go and where I want to be for four years.”

Down at King’s in London, Ont., getting the mix of international students right is part of Malloy’s job. Currently, the majority of international students at King’s are from China. Increasing the Indian contribution is about balance.

“We want to make sure that we have Indian students and Brazilian students and Irish students, Icelandic students,” he said. “Because that global village is really important at King’s.”

Malloy aims for about 25-per-cent international students at King’s, the same proportion Meehan labels as “responsible.”

“What we’re really trying to do is make sure that we’re a diversified campus, not dominated by any one culture,” Malloy said.

With higher tuition fees driving the bus for Ontario higher education, Malloy worries about how that might change the culture at Catholic colleges. King’s was established in the post-war years to give Catholic laymen the same access to higher education as the establishment Protestant families. The Resurrectionist Fathers started St. Jerome’s in a log cabin in 1865 to serve German immigrants. The Basilian Fathers did the same for Irish immigrants at St. Michael’s in Toronto. Canada’s Catholic colleges have always been about levelling up for immigrant and aspiring students. There’s a natural anxiety about any system that reinforces the advantages of an establishment that can already command money and mobility.

Talking to Indian parents considering a Canadian education for their children, Malloy has found families willing to consider the value of liberal arts and a Catholic community.

“What King’s does is pride itself on campus life and the student experience,” he said. “I can look a parent in the eye in India and say, ‘We will take care of your son or daughter.’ ”

Meehan looks on the Catholic university’s responsibility in terms of nation-building. He knows very well that international students are coming to take that first step to Canadian citizenship.

“With the natural population growth being what it is, it is incumbent on the Catholic universities to work with people who want to contribute to the country and its future,” Meehan said. “The future of Canada has got to be focused on an immigration plan that is going to be sustainable for the needs of the country… (P)art of my job at the university is to acculturate in ways that are appropriate to a university, new Canadians in the university context becoming better Canadians.”

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