Is there a limit to the number of international students a Canadian community can absorb? Perhaps not, if Cape Breton University is any indicator.
International enrolment at CBU has jumped to 2,800 students, double the number who attended last year. They now make up more than half the full-time student population - a first for a public university in Canada.
||International students from India are flocking to CBU
International students also represent a significant portion of the town of Sydney, which has just 31,000 residents (although Sydney is part of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, which is larger).
John Mayich, Director of Student Affairs at CBU, admits that the school was unprepared for the flood of students last fall. More than 1,000 new international students showed up in September, many without a place to live. As we reported in October, finding suitable housing is the No. 1 worry of international students coming to Canada.
Some fell victim to people posting apartment vacancies on Kijiji and then posing as landlords to show an apartment and collect rent "deposits."
Others could not find an apartment anywhere. CBU was forced to appeal to the community to see if families had an extra bedroom to offer to international students - a kind of homestay arrangement minus the vetting and police checks.
Finally, the university hired a full-time off-campus housing coordinator to screen apartment listings and teach international students ways to avoid scams.
Faced with declining local enrolment
Mayich says it has been a long haul to attract international students to the tiny Nova Scotian community of Sydney, a four-hour drive from Halifax and hundreds of kilometres from Montreal or New York.
Cape Breton became a full-fledged university in 2005 and almost immediately confronted an enrolment problem. Young people were fleeing the region in droves, faced with a dearth of job opportunities. "There were just not enough youth in our local community to sustain the university," says Mayich.
High school students from Ontario and other provinces were flocking to Halifax, lured by the opportunity to study in a mid-sized city with plenty of entertainment and amenities. For them, Cape Breton was seen as just too small and way too isolated.
About 15 years ago, Cape Breton began exploring the possibility that international students could solve its enrolment woes, with a focus on India. It has been persistently working on that market ever since.
The attraction for international students? CBU is much easier to get into than prestigious universities such as University of Toronto or Queen's, allowing students with minimal academic standing to come to Canada. As well, its international tuition fees are a relatively modest $17,000 per year - several thousand dollars less than Dalhousie and a bargain compared to the $46,000 that UBC engineering charges.
Mayich credits this year's explosive growth to the hard work of CBU recruiters, the fact that the school has expanded its academic offerings and a supportive Canadian government issuing visas in a timely way.
Student financials questioned
me are wondering if the Canadian government is being too helpful.
"In order to get a study permit, international student applicants must prove that they have sufficient funds to pay for the tuition fees, living expenses for themselves and any family members who come with them to Canada and return transportation," says Beatrice Fenelon, a spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
However, Cape Breton businesses advertising job openings have received hundreds of applications from international students who say they don't have enough money to survive in Canada. This raises the question of how thoroughly CIC is vetting the financial status of student visa applicants.
In a region where 15 percent of the general population is unemployed (compared to 5.6 percent across Canada), international students may be squeezing out local job seekers.
In addition, several students have visited food banks to ensure they have enough to eat. John Mayich says this may have been a cultural misunderstanding. "The students are saying that 'here's a place that has free food so I don't have to spend any money.' We have to educate them to explain the purpose of a food bank is for people who can't afford to buy food."
Trying to diversify source countries
CBU staff are aware of the risks of relying on a single country like India for students. China and Vietnam are also strong markets. As we reported last year, the Saudi debacle should be a warning for all Canadian educational institutions to diversify where their students come from. The school is hoping to expand its recruitment efforts to South America and other regions.
A few years ago, there was talk about staff and budget cuts at CBU due to weak enrolments. Now classes are almost full and the school and region are enjoying the $70 million cash injection that international students provide annually.