Loss of international students a blow to Canadian schools

Foreign students spent about $23.6 billion in Canada last year and much of that income will be lost as a result of COVID-19

Roslyn KuninSome industries are obvious victims of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic downturn.

Everybody knows that businesses in the travel and hospitality sector, especially at the international level, have taken a serious if not lethal blow. Even with government aid, airlines, cruise ships, hotels and tourist attractions will have great difficulty rebuilding and even surviving.

It’s well known that tourism and its related activities provide many jobs. The industry is one of the largest generators of foreign exchange in the world.

Tourism is an export since it brings funds into the tourist-receiving country in exchange for the transportation, hospitality and other services that travellers buy.

With borders closed or access restricted, flights reduced and potential travschooellers still nervous about the virus, we won’t be exporting much tourism for the foreseeable future.

There’s another service export badly hit, one that’s much less visible than tourism: international education.

Foreign students exchange their currency for lots of Canadian dollars to pay for education in Canada and their living and related expenses while they’re here. One student said it cost her $330 a day.

Initial estimates show that foreign students spent $23.6 billion in Canada last year, and that has grown by 63 per cent since 2016. The value of international education to Canada is described in a presentation offered by Global Women in International Education and M Square Media.

International education would rank high when compared to the goods that Canada exports. In 2019 in British Columbia, for example, it surpassed ores, pulpwood, machinery, fish, electronics, motor vehicles, aluminum products, zinc products and related articles in these categories.

Only exports of oil and wood and their related products exceeded international education in adding value.

And this year, few international students will be coming.

International students have been filling classroom seats from kindergarten to post-graduate levels in public and private institutions. Many private schools and colleges have closed or are close to  shutting down because such a high proportion of their student body is from abroad. This is particularly true for language schools.

Schools in the public sector, whether kindergarten to Grade 12 or post-secondary, won’t likely close. But they will face serious budgetary challenges.

International students pay fees many times higher than Canadian students – infinitely higher than Canadians in kindergarten to Grade 12, who don’t pay school fees. Educational institutions have come to rely on foreign student fees for an ever-growing share of their budgets.

Lack of foreign students is certainly not the only challenge schools face. The pandemic and the need for safety and social distancing has shuttered classrooms and lecture halls. Pre-digital teachers and professors suddenly found themselves having to deliver their courses online with virtually no notice – and varying degrees of success.

For the 2020-21 academic year, many educational institutions will deliver a great number of their academic offerings online.

There are several reasons why foreign students aren’t likely to flood into Canada this fall.

Travel isn’t seen as safe. Infection is a risk. Flights are few and could be cancelled without full refunds. Borders can close with no notice. Quarantines can curtail you on arrival in a country or even during your stay. So students and parents are very reluctant about any travel.

Then there’s the prospect of online courses. Many students much prefer the on-campus experience even if many still watch lectures online on their own time. They’re particularly sensitive about paying extravagant foreign students fees if they’re staying home and working on their computer.

Students will have to adjust to online learning. Other institutions will evolve to compensate for the lack of campus social life.

Educational institutions are home to some of our best and brightest minds. They must put those minds to use to adjust to the changes rendered by the pandemic, including the loss of foreign students.

But as the pandemic closes the door on foreign students, it opens a window for the many unemployed and under-employed Canadians who need new skills in order to find well-paid and meaningful work.

Will our educational institutions fill that gap?

Troy Media columnist Roslyn Kunin is a consulting economist and speaker. 

© Troy Media


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