Lofty fees lead to high controversy
International students pay much more, raising fears about schools’ motivations
B.C. universities and colleges are charging international students as much as $50,000 a year for language and academic pathway courses, even as some critics say their focus on foreign cash is denying domestic students a place in post-secondary education.
But the province’s schools say they are simply making sure international students are set up to succeed academically and socially during their studies in Canada. Thirteen administrators representing six different colleges and universities interviewed by The Vancouver Sun for this series insisted that international students do not displace domestic students. The University of B.C. has repeatedly stated in six of their most recent annual enrolment reports that international students do not compete with domestic students for provincially funded spots.
However, Peter Wylie, an associate professor at the University of B.C. Okanagan, recently presented a paper at the annual B.C. Council on Admissions and Transfer economics articulation committee meeting that argued international students are displacing domestic students at UBC.
When someone can’t actually speak English and you’re making a place for them, making an entire college for them, that is going out of your way to … get more money out of students who shouldn’t be at UBC.
Wylie said UBC is not increasing faculty numbers enough to provide courses that are popular with international students, thereby forcing domestic students out of these courses.
“Unless the university puts on a second section, domestic students will be crowded out of certain courses that are popular with international students,” Wylie said in a phone interview.
He suggested UBC allows this situation because international students provide more revenue. Those students pay three to four times the tuition Canadians do.
According to UBC senior director of international student initiatives Damara Klaassen, it was the fear of crowding out domestic students that initially prompted the university to first charge higher international fees more than 20 years ago.
The decision traces back to the establishment of UBC’s international education strategy in 1996, Klaassen said.
“They were quite concerned about not wanting to displace any domestic students. So a decision was taken to charge full-cost-recovery fees to international students,” Klaassen said in an interview.
The B.C. government does not provide funding for international post-secondary students.
UBC provost Andrew Szeri said the drive to attract international students is about more than revenue. Global rankings of universities like Times Higher Education have placed increasing importance on cross-border research activities, international faculty recruitment, overseas partnerships and international-to-domestic student ratios. UBC ranks second among Canadian universities behind the University of Toronto in the Times’s international outlook ranks, and is rated 34th in the world.
Wylie also said the UBC senate’s decision in 2014 to relax the standards for international students — grades can now be comparable, rather than identical, to those required of domestic students — has affected the admission procedures. Wylie said this created an equity issue, stacking the deck against Canadian students who might otherwise succeed academically.
“They are saying (the qualifications are) comparable because the international students pass (their courses) and the domestic students pass, but there’s a lot of domestic students who weren’t let in who could have passed,” Wylie said.
Szeri argued that education systems around the world present grades in different ways, making them difficult to compare.
“You can easily publish what is the Canadian high school GPA that you see for domestic students at UBC. You can’t do that in admissions decisions made about other countries because they have such a wide divergence of different grading systems,” he said.
The number of university and college seats for domestic students is set each year by the Ministry of Advanced Education, Skills and Training. International student enrolment does not alter these numbers, Szeri said, and the additional tuition revenue provides UBC with more resources for teaching staff.
Lena Raxter, an American international student, recently graduated from UBC with a B.Sc. in land and food systems. Although her high school grades exceeded the GPA admissions requirements, she struggled in her first year of classes.
“The level of difficulty in the United States is lower than the level of difficulty in Canada,” she said, speaking in a phone interview from Raleigh, N.C.
Although U.S. high schools use GPA to measure performance, Raxter said the types of academic preparation in these schools vary greatly from state to state.
PATHWAY PROGRAMS AND STUDENT SERVICES FACED WITH INCREASING DEMAND
International students commonly face a number of difficulties, both academic and non-academic, in adjusting to university life while pursuing studies in a second language or a new culture. Some say this is especially true for students at the college level in B.C.
Tracy Ho, a membership outreach co-ordinator for the Douglas College Students’ Union, said the support services provided by Douglas have not kept up with the huge influx of international students.
“Even the basic things like academic advising and helping the students, that is just squeaking by,” she said.
Prabhjot Hundal, an international student at Douglas College, said segregation between domestic and international students is a common issue.
“When I started, I wanted to make friends, but then I didn’t like the way domestic students stayed in one corner while the international students stayed in another,” Hundal said. “Toward the second or third year, the students started to interact more.”
An emailed response from Douglas College emphasized the college’s reputation in international programming, saying it had received “an award of excellence in internationalization from Colleges and Institutes Canada in 2011, and a silver medal in international collaboration from (the) World Federation of Colleges and Polytechnics in 2014.”
Simon Fraser University and UBC have each invested significant money in pathway programs to help students.
Christa Ovenell, college director and principal of SFU’s pathway program, Fraser International College, believes these programs offer an important component of experiential education that is often overlooked. She said international students often struggle to adjust to their studies and life in a new culture.
“The commitment we have to international students is to make their whole experience a good one, a sound one, a solid one, a safe one,” Ovenell said in a phone interview.
Tuition for Fraser International College’s university transfer program is $24,360 for one year.
Pathway programs have drawn fire from both domestic and international students, who say that the programs are designed to make more money from students.
Vantage One is a one-year transitional program designed for international students accepted to UBC. UBC spent $127 million for the construction of Vantage College, which houses the program, in 2014. It incorporates programming that teaches applied English relevant to each student’s academic field. The one-year program functions as a transition from high school to the second year of an undergraduate degree. Students who complete their year at Vantage move on to their second year at UBC without needing to reapply. Tuition fees for this program run up to $50,189 for the engineering and science stream — roughly $15,000 more than international students typically pay for the same course at UBC.
Vantage’s website describes the program as being best suited for “academically strong international students whose Englishlanguage proficiency does not yet meet the requirements for direct entry” to UBC.
According to UBC’s most recent budget, Vantage College is projected to bring in $14 million in revenue this year.
“When someone can’t actually speak English and you’re making a place for them, making an entire college for them, that is going out of your way to try to get more money out of students who shouldn’t be at UBC,” Raxter, the U.S. student, said.
Joanne Fox, principal of Vantage College, said that admissions requirements for Vantage are no different than those of other English-speaking students, other than allowing students entry with a score on the International English Language Testing System of 5.5. The IELTS test ranks students on a scale of one to nine, with eight or higher considered fluent. International students are otherwise required to have an IELTS score of 6.5 to gain admission to UBC. A student with a score of 5.5 can often speak fluently about simple subjects, but might have difficulty paraphrasing unfamiliar topics.
Fox said that seven per cent of tuition paid by Vantage’s 350 students goes toward bursaries and scholarships.
“Last year, that was over 60 students, so one in six students got some form of entrance award,” she said.
College-level institutions like Douglas College and Langara College also market themselves as pathway institutions for universities such as UBC or SFU. Both offer English-language programming, such as Langara’s LEAP program, which costs $5,976 per term.
TUITION FEES A BARRIER, STUDENTS SAY
The high price of pathway programs, coupled with increasing rises in tuition costs, has drawn growing criticism from international students at both the college and university level.
Hundal, an elected representative with the Douglas Students’ Union, said international students are facing a 9.5 per cent increase in their tuition fees for the coming semester.
“It is not fair at all because domestic students have a cap at two per cent,” she said in a phone interview, referring to the limit set by the provincial government on domestic tuition increases.
Hundal acknowledged that international students, whose tuition is not subsidized by tax dollars, should pay higher fees, but said tuition fee increases for international students should have a cap just like domestic students.
“There is no such cap for international students, so you can increase it however you want,” Hundal said.
Average international tuition at Douglas has risen by 15 per cent since 2011, but still “aligns with other post-secondary institutions in the region,” according to an emailed statement from the college.
SFU and UBC increased their international tuition by almost 40 per cent between 2011 and 2016, according to the Ministry of Advanced Education.
International students Shreetika Singh, left, from Nepal, and Kosar Mohammadispour Anvari, from Iran, study at Orchard Commons at Vantage College at the University of British Columbia last week. The college’s programs help students brush up on English before entering regular study.
Prabhjot Hundal of the Douglas College Students’ Union says a 9.5 per cent hike in tuition for international students is “not fair at all.”
Joanne Fox, the principal of Vantage College, a pathway institution run by UBC, says the school’s international students are subject to the same standards as English-speaking students, except for language proficiency.