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Flow of new international students at Western University drops by almost a third in two years

Data, obtained by CBC News through a freedom of information request, suggests Western University has seen a 29 per cent drop in the number of first-year foreign students attending, from 1,143 in 2018, to 816 in 2020.

Competition among schools and coronavirus means all bets are off this year

The data was obtained by CBC News through a freedom of information request and suggests Western University has seen a 29 per cent drop in the number of first-year foreign students attending from 1,143 in 2018, to 816 in 2020. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Data obtained by CBC News through a freedom of information request suggests Western University has seen a 29 per cent drop in the number of first-year foreign students attending, from 1,143 in 2018, to 816 in 2020.

Competition with other schools and the COVID-19 pandemic have played a factor in the decline, as some students have put off decisions about where to go to school in the fall, or whether they'll go at all, opting for online courses instead. 

"The numbers indicate to us we're not going down dramatically in international registration. What we don't know is who is going to be able to show up given the travel restrictions," said Britta Baron, the school's vice-president in charge of international recruiting. 

With so much uncertainty, there is also little in the way of hard data for this year. The numbers were obtained by CBC News before the deferral date for the 2020 academic year, which means students may accept an offer, but they may not go on to actually pay because of economic hardship or health concerns caused by the coronavirus. 

The number of first-year foreign students who accepted an offer of admission to Western University is the lowest since 2018. 11.5 per cent this year, compared to 19.6 per cent in 2018. (Colin Butler/CBC)

What is clear though is that the number of first-year international students who accepted an offer of admission to Western University is the lowest on record since 2018. This year, 11.5 per cent of students who were offered a spot at Western accepted, compared to 15.9 per cent last year and 19.6 per cent in 2018.

"That's no way reflective in a decline in interest, anything but," Baron said. 

"We're not less attractive. That number doesn't say we're less attractive. That number shows we're a bit more conservative in the number of students that we would accept."

Foreign students pay anywhere from two to seven times more in tuition fees compared to their domestic counterparts. (Colin Butler/CBC)

The university has come to rely heavily on foreign students in the last decade. In 2008, they made up only 2.6 per cent of all undergraduates, while that number rose to 16 per cent in 2018. 

Unlike their domestic counterparts, foreign students pay full-tuition, which depending on the program is two to seven times higher. If lost, it could mean a potentially catastrophic drop in revenue for the picturesque university. 

Baron said it's still too early to tell how many of the 816 students who've accepted offers this year will actually pay and whether it will have an effect on the school's bottom line. 

"To be honest, we don't really know yet," she said, indicating all bets are off. "This year will be very different from the normal year."

Western has come to rely heavily on foreign students in the last decade. In 2008, they made up only 2.6 per cent of all undergraduates, while that number rose to 16 per cent in 2018. (Colin Butler/CBC)

Baron said the university still doesn't know how many foreign students will opt to take classes online or in person, but she believes as coronavirus travel restrictions ease, more students will start making an appearance on campus. 

"Students will come even in October, November, December," she said. "We will see a gradual comeback from the international students where they A, will be able to cope with the travel restrictions and B, be able to build better comfort levels with regards to what is expected here and whether they can live comfortably and safe here in London and on-campus."

While the number of first-year international students coming to Western has dropped 29 per cent since 2018, the difference between the number of new overseas students this year and last year has only dipped a little. 

Last year, 840 foreign students accepted offers from Western, compared to 816 this year, something Baron called "baffling and very gratifying." 

"For us, this is surprisingly good news. There's lots of studies and surveys internationally that would suggest the numbers would go down much more than they are now showing."

"For us, it's baffling and very gratifying that the students are not going down due to COVID as much as we would have suspected."

It appears Western prepared for the worst when it came to COVID-19, sending out 7,066 offers to foreign students this year, a 26 per cent jump over the 5,268 offers it sent out in 2019. 

The increase in offers suggests the university has become more aggressive in its international recruitment efforts and it's paid off. 

To keep the same number of students, Western had to increase the number of offers it made, which might lead one to question: has the school lowered its standards?

Baron said that's not the case. 

"We are not going to change our admission standards. That is part of our brand. That is part of why are so successful in overall terms domestically and internationally."

About the Author

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca

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