No guidance for international students

Coming to Canada, you’re pretty much on your own

I recently received yet another email from a concerned international student looking to study at a Canadian school. The details don’t really matter, but suffice it to say that this student dug up a year-old article of mine from On Campus about a lawsuit happening at this school but unrelated to his proposed program, and wanted to know if he should reconsider. And oh yeah, could I recommend another program that might be better for his purposes — anywhere in North America.

I get this sort of mail fairly regularly. While I’m usually able to say at least something useful, I’m always stumped by just how little international students know about post-secondary education in Canada. To begin with, for example, this fellow was looking at a college program. Does he know and appreciate the difference between “college” in Canada and “college” in the U.S.? He was, at least, looking at a reputable public college. But quite often international students get sucked into the (largely unregulated) private career college system. Seeing the difference between the two systems, from half a world away, must be darn near impossible. And all of that is before we even start to talk about money questions, visa issues, professional licensing, etc. It’s frustrating for me when I get so many questions I can’t answer, or where I can only scratch the surface of these issues, but I can’t blame international students for mailing me. They have few enough options.

Often, when we talk about Canada’s obligations to our international students, we seem to speak in terms of sharing the opportunities we enjoy here, creating jobs and scholarships, expanding work visas, and so on. But the truth is that many international students really do just come here to get their education and intend to return home with it. They are pursuing foreign credentials for any number of reasons, but most of them would be recognizable to any Canadian student. It’s a way for those who can afford it to combine travel with school. It’s an opportunity to prove or to polish fluency in English. It may be a gateway to an international career. It could simply be a way to distinguish one’s credentials from out of the pack of job applicants when the day comes. But really, any of these reasons are very similar to why a Canadian student might choose to study in France rather than Toronto.

The challenge of accommodating these students in our system is more one of information than resources. The resourcing decision, for good or for ill, was made some time ago. Aside from whatever merit-based scholarships may exist for the top cut of students, international students are expected to bear the full cost of their education in Canada. In some cases they may even supply positive revenue (what we would otherwise call profit) for the schools that host them. And this is a point of contention for some people, but it seems what’s most important at this stage is to ensure that students who are investing very significant sums of money here at least have the opportunity to invest wisely. And here’s where we fail.

I will observe that some individual schools are doing a pretty good job with international student services. I want to compliment those efforts. The issue I’m talking about, however, occurs before students commit to an individual school, and when they’ve decided to study in Canada but aren’t sure where they should start. Before these students commit to a school there’s very little available in the way of help, and if they commit to the wrong school or act on bad information it may be too late afterward. And of course there’s always the fact that sometimes these students need to be warned away or protected from the schools themselves, and in these cases we can hardly rely on internal services to do that.

For a student coming over from South Asia (or equivalent) it may well be the case that any destination in the country (or on the continent!) is equally convenient. What that student wants is a good education with good opportunities to follow. And there is simply no centralized resource to which that student can turn for information. Anything to fill this void would be a serious undertaking — probably one requiring cooperation between the federal government and the governments of the various provinces and territories — but considering how much money comes into Canada each year from foreign study and how important these markets are to our international identity, I’d argue it’s an important investment to make. Not to say we need to be in the business of actively marketing ourselves to foreign students. The strength of our system seems to speak for itself. But once we’ve decided to accept their enrolment and their tuition, you’d think we’d offer them more in the way of guidance to ensure they leave Canada with good memories and a positive experience, rather than feeling like they’ve been duped, neglected, or simply ignored.


Questions are welcome at [email protected]. You can also follow me on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images