Across Canada, universities are under pressure to grow, but with stagnating or dwindling numbers of high school graduates at home, schools are increasingly looking overseas.
The selling point is Canada’s cost competitiveness compared to similar institutions in the United States, Britain and Australia.
For instance, in Ottawa one out of every 10 Carleton University undergraduates settling into the new school year is from outside of Canada. For graduate students, the ratio is closer to one in five.
And, if the university meets its strategic target, within five years, 13 per cent of all undergraduates will be international students.
Mourad Soliman, 19, who was accepted at universities in Kuwait and Egypt, decided on Carleton after he met a recruiter at a universities fair in Kuwait.
Now in his second year of communications engineering, Soliman considers his decision a good investment.
“When you see a chance like this, you seize the chance right away,” he said. “It might be a bit expensive, but it will provide a better life.”
In 2008, 95,414 foreign students were enrolled in Canadian universities, nearly double the amount from a decade before, according to statistics from Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
Of those students, the bulk settled in Canada’s major urban centres–one in five in both Toronto and Vancouver, about 12 per cent in Montreal, and another three per cent in each of Ottawa, Edmonton, and Calgary.
Between 1992 and 2007, the number of degrees, diplomas and certificates awarded to Canadian students increased 186 per cent, according to Statistics Canada.
In that same period, the number granted to international students increased by 343 per cent, the agency said.
China is the largest exporter of students, but Hong Kong, India, Vietnam and Malaysia are also considered strong markets, as are countries in the Middle East.
Pari Johnston, director of international relations with the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, said foreign students are attracted to studying here for a number of reasons.
“Our tuition fees are certainly very competitive if not lower than those in the United Kingdom and the United States,” she said. “In general, it’s a secure, safe environment, across cities and rural communities, to study in.”
In some case, universities are even establishing campuses overseas.
According to a recent report from the London-based Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, there are now 162 international branch campuses around the world, a 43-per-cent increase in three years.
The United Arab Emirates alone is host to 40 branch campuses.
Carleton has offered MBAs in Tehran and Shanghai for a decade. Just a few weeks ago, the University of Waterloo opened a campus in Dubai to 22 engineering students.
The University of Ottawa is negotiating a similar agreement with a university in Egypt. Meanwhile, it is also building links to high schools and post-secondary institutions in China, Africa and the Middle East.
But increasingly, international students argue they are being used as cash cows to fund Canada’s universities.
While fee increases for domestic students are regulated, international fees are not.
At Carleton, international students bring in $15,000 to $17,000 a year in tuition, more than twice what their domestic counterparts pay.
“Lots of people have parents who are working their tails off to pay,” said Kimalee Phillip, president of Carleton’s Graduate Students’ Association and a native of Grenada. Phillip said she is carrying about $45,000 in debt.
Mark Langer, president of the 15,000-member Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, has concerns about foreign students and how offshore campuses are funded.
“Where is startup money coming from? Is it coming out of operating costs in the hopes that they will be very profitable? These are speculative ventures,” said Langer, a film professor at Carleton University. “This isn’t a public service. This is an investment. It has to produce cash results for the university.”