The Sunday Magazine·The Sunday Edition

Hefty fees from foreign students are bailing out Canadian universities -- and that's not good

Shadowy agents, questionable English, a distorted curriculum. International students are bringing big bucks to cash-strapped Canadian universities -- which is certainly one reason why the federal government wants to double foreign enrolment by 2022. But our growing dependence comes with a cost -- to students, to professors and to the academic enterprise. Ira Basen's documentary is called "Foreign Exchange".
Cape Breton University (

There was a time, not so long ago, when the picture of Canadian campus life was pretty monochromatic: the faces were mostly white, the language was English or French, the nationality was Canadian.

That began to change in the 1990's. Students from all over the world began to come to Canadian universities. And we were happy to have them. Universities welcomed the diversity they brought. Provincial governments liked the extra revenue they delivered, and the federal government saw them as a potential source of new, highly-educated immigrants.

Today, there are more than 300,000 international students studying in Canada. About 200,000 of them are in universities. In 2012, the federal government announced it wanted to double the number of foreign students in Canada by 2022 - to nearly half a million.  But the numbers have been growing so quickly in recent years that it looks like that target will be easily surpassed. International students now inject over $8 billion a year into the Canadian economy.

But what began as a "nice to have" twenty years ago has become an "absolutely must have".  International students are now the key to survival for many Canadian universities, especially the smaller ones. And some fear the road to survival has set universities on a path to destruction.There are persistent questions about the integrity of the recruiting system, about English language proficiency, and about how the very presence of so many foreign students is shaping what Canadian universities deliver and what they don't.

Cape Breton University students (CBC)
In September, Sunday Edition contributor Ira Basen paid a visit to Cape Breton University, where roughly 30 percent of the student body comes from outside Canada.
Sunday Edition contributor Ira Basen

It's already one of the most international of all Canadian campuses. And administrators want to make it more so. Therein lies a cautionary tale.

Ira's documentary is called "Foreign Exchange."

And a footnote: the New York Times reported this week that Canadian universities are already seeing a surge in interest from overseas students, after the U.S. election. Students who might have otherwise planned to apply to American universities, are concerned about what Mr. Trump's victory might mean for them. According to Ted Sargent, the University of Toronto's vice-president international, visits to their recruitment website from the U.S. are usually around 1,000 a day.

On November 9th, the day after the U.S. election, that spiked to 10,000


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?