"Danger ahead" in international education, warns Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategy Associates in a recent blog post. He argues that in the next 18 months Canada's competitive position in international education is going to be significantly threatened.
Over the last decade, school districts and post-secondary institutions have come to rely on international students as provincial funding has been capped and domestic enrolments shrink.
But is this a good strategy - or simply sticking your head in the sand?
In the K-12 sector, school districts have been counting on international students to fill classrooms as enrolments decline. In the five years from 2011-2016, the number of domestic students fell in every province except Alberta. (And I suspect that Alberta has lost some in the last couple of years as the oil patch has fallen on tough times). In Ontario alone, enrolments declined by 64,000 students over the five years.
Certainly, it's beneficial for school boards to bring in international students. It keeps teachers employed and schools open. However, that cannot be used as an excuse for failing to plan based on projected domestic enrolments. School boards may have to make some tough calls in the years ahead, decisions that they have avoided thanks to the influx of international students.
At the post-secondary level, Canadian institutions have been counting on international students to fill classrooms and balance budgets. In Ontario, the province recently cut tuition fees by 10 percent - without telling institutions how to make up for the loss of revenue. The answer for most: increase international student enrolments. However, at some point colleges and universities will need to cut low-demand programs and trim administrative staff.
Unlike Usher, who is forecasting trouble within 18 months, I believe that Canada will remain at the forefront of attracting international students, at least for the next few years. As I argued in the March newsletter, this has much to do with the missteps of English-speaking competitors:
- USA: President Trump has been bad for international education, with enrolments slumping in that country. He may be re-elected in 2020, which would mean four more years of sluggish numbers.
- Britain: The Brexit mess threatens to continue for years. Meanwhile, students stay away.
- Australia: Students have been scared off by some racist incidents over the last several years.
However, the international student gravy train won't be go on forever. Sooner or later, a worldwide recession or shifting student preferences will have an impact on Canada's international student numbers. Canadian educational leaders would be wise to plan ahead.