Nfld. & Labrador

How a St. John's university is changing the makeup of N.L.'s capital city

There are now more international students at Memorial University than there are residents of Bishop's Falls, and trends indicate that number is going nowhere but up.

International students now outnumber non-N.L. Canadian students at Memorial University

Hridisha Arif travelled 11,000 kilometres from her home country of Bangladesh to study cell and molecular biology at Memorial University in St. John's. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Hridisha Arif left a lot of her life behind five years ago — parents, two young siblings and a very warm, humid climate — and travelled more than 11,000 kilometres to study at Memorial University in St. John's.

The No. 1 reason? Affordable tuition.

"That's why I think a lot of international students come here from Bangladesh," says Arif, who is studying cell and molecular biology, with a minor in psychology.

She was also lured by the thought of studying and living in Canada, which she says is "pretty cool."

And during her years at MUN, a lot has changed — especially the number of international students like her.

"I think there is even more," Arif says.

'Staggering' number of applicants

And she's right. The number of international students at MUN surged by more than 400 during the current academic year. It's a rate of growth that few universities can boast, says MUN provost and vice-president (academic) Noreen Golfman.

"Just the sheer number of applications has intensified. It's staggering," she says.

Noreen Golfman, MUN's provost and academic vice-president, says the level of interest among international students about studying at MUN is staggering. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

St. John's is more diverse than at any time in its history, and much of the credit for this can be attributed to the tuition rates and educational offerings at MUN.

There are now more international students at MUN than there are residents of some medium-sized Newfoundland and Labrador towns, and trends indicate that number is going nowhere but up.

The lower tuition fees — made possible by a massive grant from government — are helping to attract a record number of international students, in turn helping to change the complexion of the capital city.

"You get to see people from everywhere in the world. I don't think that any other environment would be that diverse," says Sarah Khalil, an engineering student from Syria.

Sarah Khalil of Syria is one of 3,500 international students at Memorial University. She is a pursuing a master's degree in civil engineering. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

There's evidence of this diversity everywhere you look on campus.

At the MUN Field House, it's common to see a basketballer from Israel practising on the main court, while a group of recreational players from China play a friendly game on a side court.

"I come from China. We all come from China.… Newfoundland university is good study place," says Guangming Fu, a geophysics student enjoying a break from his studies.

A superpower for educating international students

People from around the globe are helping turn Memorial University into a superpower for educating international students.

Guangming Fu is one of more than 400 students from China studying at Memorial University during the 2019-20 academic year. Fu is studying geophysics. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

The numbers are jaw-dropping. Just under 3,500 international graduate and undergraduate students are studying at MUN this year. That's more than the populations of Bishop's Falls, Pasadena and Harbour Grace, and just about equal to the size of Port aux Basques, according to the 2016 census.

We're processing these files as fast as we can. By the thousands, they're coming in.- Noreen Golfman

There's been a 340 per cent increase in international students since 2005.

And that trend will continue.

"We're processing these files as fast as we can. By the thousands, they're coming in," Golfman explains.

A downward trend for N.L., Canadian students

Meanwhile, the number of students from Newfoundland and Labrador plunged by more than 3,000 between 2005 and 2019, from 14,834 to 11,756.

And fewer Canadian students from outside Newfoundland and Labrador are choosing MUN, with the number dropping by 800 from a peak of 3,300 six years ago to 2,427 today.

International students sometimes outnumber local and Canadian students in some classes, especially in programs like engineering.

That's just fine with Marcus Baker, a future engineer from Clarenville.

"Different cultures could definitely enhance you in the workplace, because down the road you may be working with a lot of people from outside of the country," says Baker.

"So I think the more educated you are about different cultures and the different kind of people there are in this world, the better off you'll be."

And many foreign students have good things to say.

The qualities the people have here has rubbed off on me. I've learned that it doesn't take, it doesn't cost anything to be nice.'-  Hridisha Arif

"The qualities the people have here has rubbed off on me," says Hridisha Arif. "I've learned that it doesn't take, it doesn't cost anything to be nice."

Sarah Khalil adds, "I really feel that it's like home. I don't feel this place is strange or different for me anymore. I think I've made lots of friends and I really see it as my second home."

Thousands in savings

MUN likes to tout its reputation as an attraction, but it's hard to dismiss the lure of cheaper tuition. Local students pay among the lowest fees in Canada, with rates that have been frozen for nearly two decades. Non-resident Canadian students also get a bargain.

And if you're an international student looking to study in Canada, it's hard to ignore MUN's appeal.

Tuition for full-time undergraduate international students at MUN is $11,460.

In comparison, an international student studying at Dalhousie in Halifax would pay nearly $20,000, while an even more extreme example is Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., where the tuition is more than $46,000, according to data compiled by Universities Canada.

An international undergraduate student could save more than $30,000 in tuition fees to earn a four-year degree at MUN, when compared with fees charged at Dalhousie.

"The quality of education is the same, but we are paying three times less tuition here at Memorial compared to any university in Ontario," says Arif.

MUN is spreading the word by sending recruiters far and wide, and students from every corner of the world are responding.

"(It's) just changing the face of the campus. Amazing. It's awesome," says Golfman.

Students from Asia lead the way

MUN keeps a close eye on where these students come from. It's clear that Asia is well-represented on campus, with nearly 1,700 students coming from Bangladesh, India, China, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

There are more than 700 students from sub-Saharan Africa, and nearly 500 students from the Middle East and North Africa.

So the big question: how is MUN able to offer such low tuition fees, since the actual cost per student at MUN is more than $26,000?

The simple answer? A big cheque from the provincial government.

In this fiscal year, taxpayers will hand over $308 million to MUN for operations.

That's just under what the government of Nova Scotia provides to the 10 universities in that province.

Roughly 15 per cent of MUN's revenues come from tuition fees, which is a considerably lower portion than at most other universities.

"The ratio of tuition to government grant is quite different from anywhere in Canada, with the exception of Quebec," says Golfman.

A small group of international students work together in the engineering department. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

This is occurring in an era of painful government deficits and a debt burden that is unmatched anywhere in the country.

So how can this be justified?

CBC News wanted to ask Advanced Education Minister Christopher Mitchelmore that question, but an interview was not granted.

The department provided a statement saying, in part, "I commend Memorial for the work they have done with their budgets and look forward to our continued relationship with Memorial as we move forward."

Marcus Baker, an engineering student from Clarenville, likes the fact that there's such an international flavour to his program. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

So while taxpayers are bearing some of the cost related to the growth of foreign students, Golfman says, "We're very much aligned with the provincial expectation and demand for populating this province in order to stimulate the social and economic well-being of it."

And for those who might say taxpayers are subsidizing international students, Golfman says that is "really undermining the potential benefits of having international students here. Diversity and cultural richness and being a 21st-century, forward-facing university is really what we're about."

And research shows that a growing number of foreign students — roughly 17 per cent — are staying in the province after finishing their studies.

Mechanical engineering professor George Mann, right, works with some of his students. Mann is originally from Sri Lanka, and so are many of his Memorial University students. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

Hridisha Arif is one of those who hopes to have a future in Newfoundland and Labrador.

"I've been here for so long this is like home right now," she says.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Terry Roberts is a reporter with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, and is based in St. John’s. He previously worked for The Telegram, The Compass and The Northern Pen newspapers during a career that began in 1991. He can be reached by email at: