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Students walk outside Sheridan College’s Davis Campus in Brampton, Ont., on Sept 29. In Ontario’s college system, foreign enrolments have increased 342 per cent since 2012-2013, while domestic enrolments declined 15 per cent.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Ontario’s reliance on international students to fund its colleges poses serious financial risks to the postsecondary system, the province’s Auditor-General says.

International students, who make up about 30 per cent of the student body at Ontario’s 24 colleges, provide 68 per cent of all tuition revenue. Their fees alone were worth $1.7-billion last year, more than the colleges received in provincial grants. The majority of international students, 62 per cent, came from one country: India.

The number of international students admitted to Canadian postsecondary institutions has soared in recent years, partly as a response to stagnating government funding. International tuition fees are typically four times higher than those for Canadian students. In Ontario’s college system, foreign enrolments have increased 342 per cent since 2012-2013, while domestic enrolments declined 15 per cent. Many of the international students are attracted by the opportunity to apply for permanent residency in Canada after graduation.

In India and Canada’s international student recruiting machine, opportunity turns into grief and exploitation

In her 2021 report, Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk said the reliance on funds from international students poses risks outside the government’s control. Enrolment and revenue could take a large and sudden drop if students from one country were unable to get into Canada for reasons such as not being able to obtain visas, she wrote, and the Ministry of Colleges and Universities has no plan to deal with that possibility.

“We found that the ministry has not developed a strategic plan for the sector to help mitigate the risk of a sudden decline in international students and the impact it could have on the college sector, students and government,” the report says.

In its response included in the report, the government said it was aware of these issues and that Ontarians should be proud local colleges attract students from all over the world.

“Many of those students are seeking not just a Canadian postsecondary education, but also an opportunity to start a new life and career in Canada,” the government said. “We agree with the Auditor-General that diversification of international enrolment is an important strategy for colleges and efforts are already under way across the system.”

The number of international students admitted to Canadian postsecondary institutions has soared in recent years, with many attracted by the opportunity to apply for permanent residency in Canada after graduation.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

To take one recent example of international enrolment risk, Saudi Arabia called home thousands of postsecondary students in 2018 over a diplomatic dispute with the Canadian government. Although relatively few Saudi students were attending Ontario colleges, many were at universities in the province. Their departure has been cited as a contributing factor to the insolvency of Laurentian University.

Many worried that the COVID-19 pandemic could trigger an enrolment decline. In Australia, which also has a high proportion of foreign students, losses owing to the relative dearth of international students related to COVID-19 have been estimated in the billions. In Canada, the crisis proved mostly manageable, as governments allowed students to enroll from abroad and study remotely. But the Auditor-General said there is a need to diversify the source countries from which students are drawn.

Linda Franklin, president of Colleges Ontario, said colleges have spoken to the government about the level of reliance on international students.

“As the Auditor-General pointed out, we are the lowest-funded system in the country,” Ms. Franklin said.

In recent years, the Ford government cut domestic tuition fees by 10 per cent and then froze them for two years, further limiting the colleges’ ability to raise funds, she added.

“We’ve had initial conversations with the government about [addressing] the sustainability of the college system in Ontario,” Ms. Franklin said.

A classroom studies English at the education consultancy Grey Matters in Chandigarh, Punjab state, where thousands of Indian students each month learn skills to facilitate their studies in countries such as Canada.PRIYANKA PARASHAR/The Globe and Mail

The Auditor-General also said colleges have been partnering with recruitment agencies in India that are paid commissions for the numbers they enroll, but the colleges lack a formal policy for selecting or removing those agencies. Of the 100 recruiters whose websites were examined, seven were found to make misleading claims such as “visa assurance” or positive English-language test scores.

In its detailed analysis of four colleges, the report found that domestic students did not appear to have been displaced by international students, and generally had access to the colleges where they applied. But it recommended the government track the programs with the highest demand to ensure Ontario applicants have priority.

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