Trudeau’s $148 million plan for international students is about dollars, not diversity

Op-eds Opinions
Original photo by Hugo Wong, photo illustration by Cam Welch

Last month, the Trudeau government outlined a $148 million five-year plan to diversify global recruiting efforts. Specifically, the government stated that they wish to attract students from “middle class” families with an interest in obtaining an English or French education. They’ll be targeting countries like Ukraine, Mexico, and Thailand. 

But this policy announcement isn’t really about improving diversity on campus — it’s a calculated decision amid diplomatic tensions with China. If the Trudeau Liberals, and Canada’s post-secondary institutions, really wanted to increase diversity international students wouldn’t have to pay an insurmountable sum for tuition. This decision is ultimately about dollars and diplomacy, not diversity. At Canadian universities, Chinese and Indian students make up more than half of all international students.

It’s estimated that international students contributed $21 billion to the Canadian economy in 2018, which is more than auto part or lumber exports. 

Last year, criticism from Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister caused Saudi Arabia’s king to declare that all Saudi students studying in Canada would have to leave and go back to Saudi Arabia. In August 2018, the Martlet reported that 34 Saudi students (23 undergraduate and 11 graduate) were registered at UVic between September 2017 and April 2018. Saudi students were the fourth largest international cohort in Canada.

If Chinese students were to withdraw, it would definitely have a billion-dollar impact on universities’ funding across the country. 

In December 2018, Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, one of the top executives of the giant Chinese tech company Huawei after an extradition request from the U.S. She’s currently under house arrest in a multi-million dollar home in Vancouver. 

Less than two weeks after the arrest, two Canadians were detained in China for espionage-related crimes. Many suspect this was a retaliatory action. Now, nearly a year later, Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor are still being denied access to lawyers and family members. China has also placed restrictions on various Canadian exports to China, including canola and meat. 

Amid all this diplomatic drama, Canadian universities and the federal government have undoubtedly begun to worry about Chinese students studying in Canada, and future students interested in studying here. 

Hence, Trudeau’s plan to attract more international students from different countries. He’s essentially diversifying his portfolio. And, like Trudeau, I’m all for diversity. 

Except, like many students at UVic, I’ve watched as international students and their allies protest international student tuition increases year after year. And year after year, I watch that tuition climb to the point where a four-year degree for an international student now costs six figures at UVic. 

To be clear, this does not imply that all international students are rich. In fact, international students make up nearly half of UVic’s food bank users. 

But when international students foot a significant part of the university’s bill, they become a source of income for universities. At the University of Sydney, one-fifth of the entire university budget is dependent on just their Chinese student cohort. 

In an article for the Vancouver Sun, Salvastore Babones, a University of Sydney professor, responded to Trudeau’s recent policy decision. 

“When universities and governments think of international students as a revenue source, these kinds of perverse policies start to seem natural,” Babones said. “The proper role of international students is to diversify and enrich campus culture, not to support universities with their tuition money.”

Regardless of where they are coming from, international students pay a disproportionate percentage of the university’s bill. 

Some have warned that this kind of policy leads to “brain drain” — taking skilled, smart, and employable individuals out of the labour force in their own countries in order to contribute to Canada’s labour force. It claims that policies like this literally drain other countries of certain sectors of skilled labour, like medicine or law. This is just a theory, not a proven dynamic. But combined with the cost of university, the “brain drain” critique points to something very important: universities still aren’t giving educational opportunities to low-income people from other countries. 

Trudeau’s plan to diversify universities by hoping to decrease the high percentage of Chinese students may diversify by country fails to encourage any semblance of economic diversity in the international student cohorts on campus. Considering how much international students pay in tuition, universities attract a very specific group of students — the ones that can afford it.

So, if we really want more diversity on our campus, we need to consider how the current price international students pay is exclusionary. Education is powerful, so let’s give those with less power fairer access to it.