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Western Canada: Flow of international students worsening housing crisis

Good morning. Wendy Cox in Vancouver this morning.

Students from all around the world have enriched the campus experience at post-secondary universities and colleges across Canada. The Canadian Bureau for International Education has said they also offer Canada first dibs on the brightest future workers in the world and allows our relatively small country a “soft power” advantage to gain foreign-policy objectives.

But more practically, they have kept many Canadian post-secondary institutions afloat, with each student paying tuition that ranges from three times to 10 times that paid by their Canadian classmates. Besides an education, many international students arrive with the intention of working, ending up in low-paying retail or fast-food jobs that keep them grinding away at minimum wages for hours in order to afford the high cost of housing in cities such as Vancouver and Toronto.

And they have to live somewhere: As post-secondary reporter Joe Friesen writes today, the presence of more than 800,000 foreign students in Canada in 2022 has exacerbated a housing crisis. That has left Canada’s Housing Minister Sean Fraser in a delicate position, suggesting a federal government cap on study permits may be needed to alleviate the pressure while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau later said international students were the latest group to be blamed for a multi-faceted crisis that has been brewing for many years.

The problem will not be an easy one to fix. In a feature story today, post-secondary reporter Joe Friesen uncovered some remarkable statistics about colleges in Ontario, finding that at least eight of Ontario’s 24 publicly funded colleges – job-focused institutions that primarily offer one- and two-year programs – are majority international students. Sarnia’s Lambton College, for instance, was 82-per-cent international students in 2021-22, according to full-time student stats from the provincial government.

Statistics from the British Columbia and Alberta governments paint a similar picture of international student growth, but also show a decline – in some cases a dramatic one – in the number of domestic students enrolled.

For the 2021-22 school year, the latest for which statistics are available, international students made up 27 per cent of the student body at the University of British Columbia, a 26-per-cent jump since 2016-17. At Langara College in Vancouver, a publicly funded, degree-granting institution where the tuition is lower and the competition to get in is not Hunger Games worthy, international students make up 33 per cent, an increase of 58 per cent over the same period.

But what’s notable is that at the same time, enrolment of domestic students at UBC grew by only 4.5 per cent. At Langara it dropped by a remarkable 27 per cent.

Across the 11 publicly funded institutions in the Lower Mainland, international student enrolment increased by 45 per cent while domestic enrolment dropped by 5 per cent.

Alberta universities and colleges demonstrated a similar trend. Between 2017-18 – the earliest the figures are available – and 2021-22, international enrolment increased by 37 per cent. But domestic enrolment barely moved: the figures show it declined by 0.6 per cent.

It’s not hard to see why universities and colleges blanch at suggestions that international student visas should be capped.

For example, for the 2021-22 fiscal year, the University of Alberta had its operating funding from the province cut by more than $40-million and that was on top of cuts over the previous two years. Alberta’s postsecondary institutions overall had a funding cut of $135-million that year.

McMaster University economist Arthur Sweetman, an expert on immigration and public policy, told Joe the growth in international students is an example of what happens when policy-makers misunderstand the incentives they create.

The federal government has placed no limits on student visas, he said, and the provinces are happy not to increase their grants to post-secondary institutions. The result is that some schools have pushed the envelope.

“I think it’s a regulatory failure,” Sweetman said. “If you tell people to go make money and here are the rules, people are going to make money and go right up to the edge of the rules.”

Caught in the middle are the international students themselves. Earlier this year, Jenny Francis, a geography faculty member at Langara, released early findings from a three-year survey of more than 1,000 students.

She found postsecondary institutions such as hers pay little attention to whether the students are suited to moving on to fulfilling Canadian careers in their field. Statistics show that Canada only expects between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of them to stay, depending on their level of education. But a far higher percentage of students expect they will, she said.

“I do feel students are sold a dream,” Francis said.

Source: The Globe and Mail