Nova Scotia

CBU prepares for another influx of international students

2,000 international students started at CBU in September and another 500 will start in January.

2,000 international students started in September and another 500 will start in January

Nearly 2,000 international students started at Cape Breton University in September, and another 500 are expected to start in January. (Norma Jean MacPhee/CBC)

After an influx of nearly 2,000 international students in September, Cape Breton University officials scrambled to find housing, classroom space and staff.

But as another 500 new students are expected in January, officials say CBU is better prepared this time.

Parteek Gunny Brar, president of the students' union, said logistical problems from September have mostly been solved.

"I would not really phrase it as problems, because these are good problems," said Brar, who is originally from India and is in his third year at CBU. "They come with growth, right?"

The students' union recommended the university hire an off-campus housing co-ordinator, who has since helped students find housing, Brar said.

Parteek Gunny Brar is the president of the students' union at Cape Breton University. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

There have been gaps in writing and academic supports, he said, but CBU has put resources into those areas since then.

Some international students were surprised at the cost of rent in Cape Breton and have needed help understanding leases and dealing with landlords. That information is being added to orientation materials being sent out to prospective students, Brar said.

Students have also had some difficulty finding part-time work, in part because of large numbers looking for work and in part due to cultural barriers.

But the university has done a good job of connecting new students with volunteer opportunities in the community, which may help international students gain experience that could help them find work, said Brar.

"I feel like CBU is a lot more prepared for January than they were for September," he said.

"Certainly, this is a hot topic in CBU when I'm talking to management. Everyone is going to be giving their 100 or 110 per cent, actually, to give the best experience to students who are coming from anywhere across the world.

"I think the growth numbers are manageable. I think there's a lot of potential that CBU has, not just for the university, but for the community at large."

Cape Breton University welcomed 2,000 international students to campus in September. (Norma Jean MacPhee/CBC)

Gordon MacInnis, vice-president of finance, said enrolment nearly doubled with the addition of just under 2,000 international students in September, and the university is set to grow again at the start of the new semester in January.

MacInnis said recruiting is like a funnel, with recruiters initially speaking to a large number of students that then gets whittled down by the process of placing a deposit, registering for courses and finding accommodations.

This fall, the funnel wasn't exactly as expected, he said.

"We sort of stopped a lot further up in that funnel than what we anticipated we would," said MacInnis. "We knew we were going to grow, but I think the rate of growth really caught everybody a little off-guard."

CBU has managed to accommodate the sudden growth, but is also making plans to ensure January goes smoother.

Gordon MacInnis is the vice-president of finance at Cape Breton University. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Most people in Cape Breton are used to dealing with depopulation, not the reverse, MacInnis said.

"Organizationally, where we've been in the mode of essentially battening down the hatches and trying to focus on how to do more with less, all of a sudden to kick that into a gear where we're managing growth, it's a very different mindset and it certainly does bring many opportunities," MacInnis said.

"It's certainly a lot more fun. It brings its issues that you have to manage through, but what we have going on here is perhaps the most tangible opportunity I've seen in 30 years to change the demographic curve of this community."

Administrators are currently examining the numbers and figuring out the capacity of the physical infrastructure. CBU can handle more students, MacInnis said, but the university needs to know how much more is possible.

"I think there is a lot of talk in the institution now around just what is the number," said MacInnis. 

"It's a seemingly easy question, but to get a thorough answer to it, and I guess a thoughtful answer, requires a lot of work."

The university is also taking a hard look at its staffing.

"We're adamant we're going to maintain quality as we go, and so if that translates to more hires, then we have to be hiring people," he said.

Meanwhile, CBU is not putting the brakes on its recruiters, he said.

They're already working on bringing in more students in May.

"It's different now than when I was in school," said MacInnis. "The typical pattern is September to April and you're gone, you're off for the summer.

"It's changed, particularly for the international market. There's various start dates, so it really transitions us into a 12-month operation."