After five years of accelerating international enrolment at the University of the Fraser Valley, administrators have slammed on the brakes as they try to address widespread concerns about how the rapid growth has affected the student experience.
Earlier this year, officials decided to try to hold the share of international students on campus roughly at its current level. International enrolment more than doubled between 2014 and the start of 2019, but UFV has decided to try to keep its foreign student population to 20 per cent of the university’s total enrolment.
Officials hope that will give UFV time to better support students and plan for the future.
In September, Alisa Webb, the university’s vice-president of students, issued a report documenting widespread concerns about how UFV was managing international student growth and the effects it was having on the classroom and campuses.
After months speaking to students and faculty, Webb wrote that faculty are feeling overwhelmed, foreign learners are often unprepared, and domestic students are showing increasing signs of xenophobia.
“One word sums up the overarching theme of what I heard and learned through this process: concern,” Webb wrote. “Individuals and groups expressed concerns about UFV’s current approach to international admissions and enrolment, about the level of support available to faculty and staff as they navigate this change in classroom and campus composition, and about international student success and our efforts to support it.”
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The spike in foreign students has its origins in calls by previous provincial and federal governments to dramatically increase international student enrolment. Foreign-student tuition fees have swelled the coffers of B.C. universities, while the students themselves have been eyed as a key source of skilled, knowledgeable immigrants.
Even as the BC NDP have advocated a “balanced approach” to international enrolment, foreign-student counts have continued to increase quickly. Donald Trump may be partly to blame. Since his election, the American student visa process has become “a nightmare,” a lawyer working with student immigrants told CNBC earlier this year. International students have turned to Canadian post-secondary institutions – and not just large universities in big cities.
Many B.C. universities and colleges have seen dramatic jumps in international student counts.
It has also been larger than anticipated, with budgets suggesting universities have consistently underestimated the number of international students who will be studying in the year to come.
Webb told The News that the increase in international student enrolment has been sudden.
“We’ve been way more popular as a destination for students than we’ve anticipated,” she said, although she added that enrolment projections are improving.
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International students pay tuition at rates much higher than their Canadian classmates, but that’s not all they bring to campus.
Their presence is seen to contribute to the goal of “internationalization,” by which campuses, classrooms and discussions feature a diversity of perspectives and experiences that better reflect the broader world.
Webb was told the integration of foreign students at UFV is riddled with complex challenges, but that the value they bring to campuses makes it worth ensuring the university does its best to “get it right.”
Like many of their Canadian classmates, international students coming to UFV need more support than they have been given, Webb found.
While all students must meet the same entrance requirements, certain groups have different needs to ensure they are ready to begin university study.
Many international students, Webb found, weren’t familiar with online coursework, the structure of courses and academic integrity standards. They also faced language challenges that made study – and communication with Canadian classmates – more difficult.
Those issues are manageable, Webb said. And many of them overlap with challenges encountered by domestic students, who faculty say are also often unprepared for university-level academic reading and writing.
Some local students are less than sympathetic. Webb reported faculty have noted rising frustration among Canadian learners in programs with many international students. The Canadians expressed frustration with their international classmates “perceived and/or actual ‘deficiencies,’” and Webb wrote that some professors “suggest that this is actually leading to intolerance and a rise of xenophobia.”
Webb reported that the university isn’t yet working collaboratively to help support international students. But she told The News that her findings, along with those of another committee, will lead the university to increase spending to fix those issues. UFV is also scaling up its “University 101” course focused on preparing incoming students for the academic rigours of post-secondary study.
Faculty and staff also need more training, Webb said.
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There are deeper issues facing the university’s international student programs.
Although international students are seen as an important way to bring more diversity to campuses, Webb notes that UFV’s foreign-learner population has, ironically, become more homogeneous over the years.
Three-quarters of international students are from India, and certain programs draw disproportionate numbers of such learners.
“While some departments attempt to manage classroom diversity by reserving seats for international students and domestic students, overwhelming international demand can see those abandoned, resulting in whole sections full of international students,” Webb writes.
That imbalance is hard to manage, and also isn’t great for the foreign students.
“Often, these international students are from a single part of the world, detracting from the goal of an international experience,” Webb wrote.
Having so many students from one country also carries “significant” risk to UFV, Webb warned. Any political, economic or social events that affect the number of Indian students coming to UFV could have a large impact on the university’s bottom line.
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The hold on international growth is temporary, and is aimed at giving the university time to improve supports for students, give faculty and staff help and training, and develop a larger plan for the future – one that Webb says should try to increase the diversity of international students, and better balance foreign and domestic learners across programs.
The BC Federation of Students (BCFS) has called on the province to create an “international education strategy.”
Michael Olson, the BCFS’s executive director, said he is pleased to hear that UFV is reviewing how it manages international student growth.
Few universities, Olson said, have reckoned with the challenges caused by the surge in international student enrolment or given those students enough help.
“I haven’t heard of the same kind of acknowledgment from other universities.”
He said international students face challenges that haven’t been suitably addressed by many institutions. He also noted that many aren’t rich. (Webb reported that international students at UFV are increasingly seeking “emergency funds” and regularly accessing food hampers.)
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Thanks largely to the tuition fees paid by international students, UFV ran a $22 million surplus last year.
Webb says the university will be spending some of that money on new counsellors, accessibility advisors, transition supports and expanded student orientation programs.
“None of these are specific to international: they benefit all students at UFV,” she said. But they have been informed by what she and her colleagues have heard over the last year.
“As the student population changes, you don’t necessarily know, until those students are here, what does that support look like for them, what is it that they need,” she said.
“We want to welcome students, but at the same time, it’s [determining]: what is an optimal number as we try to ensure that everyone has a positive experience, that everyone is supported in what they do.”
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