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IN mere months, lockdown measures meant to slow the coronavirus contagion have exposed glaring vulnerabilities throughout global supply chains. One of those supply chains involves millions of international students that keep Western universities financially afloat every year, including here in Canada.
Now that scheme is vulnerable.
Most Canadian universities already anticipate a drop in international student enrolment this fall, and it won’t be institutions alone that will suffer. The economic impact of international students is substantial — in 2018, they contributed over $21 billion to Canada’s GDP, supporting almost 170,000 jobs.
In Manitoba, a record 18,725 international students injected $400 million into the provincial economy that same year, supporting over 4,250 jobs.
No doubt, international education provides other intrinsic benefits, to foreign students as well as the institutions that host them. For students, studying abroad can be a formative experience that links self-discovery with an enhanced quality of education and greater career opportunities. For institutions, the presence of international students bolsters prestige, enriches campus communities, promotes cross-cultural exchange and nurtures global research and scholarship ties.
Yet these academic and social benefits are dwarfed in their perceived value by the revenue bonanza that foreign students deliver. Inflated international tuition rates are typically three to four times higher than domestic student rates; this covers for government funding shortfalls while also suppressing inflation of domestic student rates. Now, thanks to COVID-19, many of our universities may see their budgetary expectations shattered.
In April, a survey conducted by QS, a higher education research group, focused on foreign students intending to study in Canada and found that 54 per cent said they planned to defer their studies for a year — and 15 per cent said they had abandoned their plans to study in Canada altogether.
It was reported recently that Western University in Ontario has already seen a 10 per cent drop in international students who have confirmed an offer of admission compared to last year.
This may be just the beginning. Developing a workable COVID-19 vaccine is no sure thing — travel restrictions and physical-distancing measures will remain in one form or another for months, if not years. Meanwhile, the emergency shift to online learning that many universities have enacted will likely be retained to some degree, both for legitimate physical-distancing purposes and the inevitable discovery of new cost savings for cash-strapped schools.
In turn, the traditional university social experience and cultural immersion that foreign students use as justifications for the exorbitant cost to study abroad will be gutted and lose the allure they once had.
Speaking on a podcast in early May, Stanford professor and historian Niall Ferguson summed up the dilemma for institutions hungry for international student revenue, but barred from holding in-person classes due to physical distancing requirements.
"How will universities revert to normality if distance learning works?" Ferguson asked. "If they fail, they have a problem, and if they succeed they also have a problem." His point: why would any international student fork over huge sums of money to study in a foreign country when they can essentially acquire the same credential over Zoom?
More barriers to international travel, outsized tuition fees for a diminished learning experience, and the need to preserve savings amid a fragile and uneven global economic recovery will weigh heavily on international students’ decision-making processes. Amid so much uncertainty, a significant portion are likely to sour on the prospect of studying abroad for a while.
On the flipside, in some respects, the explosive growth of the international education market favouring Western countries over the past decade represents just one more aspect of the perverse outflow of wealth and knowledge from poorer nations to richer ones. One estimate calculates the net resource transfers from the global South to the global North at over $16 trillion since 1980.
A silver lining of the pandemic may be that, for the foreseeable future, vast numbers of bright minds from the developing world who were planning to go study elsewhere will instead attend local institutions and build up local expertise. At the same time, this newfound revenue will enable these institutions to build their own research and academic capacities in a way that could enhance systems of higher education in developing nations, and further efforts toward lessening harmful legacies of colonization and global inequality.
This would be a positive international development, but a painful one for Canada’s institutions. However, if the pandemic has proven anything, it is that, in a world of interconnected risk, local knowledge, expertise and innovation are integral to addressing global challenges.
Kyle Hiebert is the strategy and research advisor at the University of Manitoba Students’ Union and a former editor of the Africa Conflict Monitor.