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KPU eager to host more international students in Richmond

Lure of foreign funds can impact what programs are offered: Critic

New country. New school. New opportunities.

It’s safe to say Priyanka is enjoying her time at the Richmond campus of Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU), far from her home in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

It has given her a chance to grow in a way that would have been much more difficult to accomplish back home.

Not only is she working towards her accounting diploma — skills she is planning to use when she returns to Dubai to help her father’s construction and real estate business – Priyanka is keen to play a role outside of the classroom here in her adopted community.

“Even though it’s very westernized, Dubai’s culture is very different. Here, it’s more open. There are more opportunities for women. Right away when I came to Canada, I started volunteering and got involved in the community,” she said. “Back in Dubai, I would have just gone to school, visited friends, and then gone home.”

Priyanka, 19, is one of a growing number of overseas students at KPU which is aiming to expand its international student program as a means of broadening its revenue base, but also more importantly it argues, enriching its learning environment.

That’s according to Sandra Schinnerl, director of KPU’s Office of International Students and Scholars.

“They (foreign students) come with a different perspective. They, themselves, can contribute to the learning in the classroom by talking about what their perspectives and understandings are,” Schinnerl said. “They provide a way for domestic students to learn about the world.”

Since 2008, KPU has managed to do quite well in attracting international students to its Richmond and Surrey campuses. Numbers have gone from 520 five years ago to more than 1,300 currently.

“They (foreign students) are an important part of our internationalization strategy,” Schinnerl said. “We want to have students from around the world in our classrooms. And we want them in all of our programs.”

Hopes are to increase the numbers from the current eight per cent of the school’s population to 10 per cent in the coming years.

While that may seem like a modest jump, have school’s like KPU gone too far already in soaking up the revenue international students bring with them?

With most schools charging them about three times what domestic students pay to offset provincial subsidies, it’s a potential revenue stream that is hard to ignore, as government purse strings remain tight around education funding.

According to the B.C. Council for International Education, in 2011-12, the more than 100,000 international students in B.C. injected in excess of $2 billion into the province’s economy, supporting more than 22,000 jobs.

Overall, the provincial Crown corporation that supports international education stated that foreign students were responsible for generating a $6 billion ripple effect across B.C.

So, international students are big business. But is it a segment of the economy we may have already become too reliant upon?

David Eby, advanced education critic for the provincial NDP, said there is a danger of getting too used to the economic benefits international students pack along with them when they land here.

“The point has passed where there’s a debate about whether or not we depend on this funding. It’s very clear that if international students stop coming tomorrow, there would be massive layoffs and huge impacts for domestic students,” Eby said. “The schools are using this funding to just fill in for the government cuts.

“I don’t think anyone can say, credibly, that you could get rid of the international student program and not impact domestic students.”

Eby conceded that most people do believe international student programs are a benefit for classmates who were born here.

But with international student numbers, and their revenues, rising, there is a concern  about their impact on what programs get offered.

“It’s leading to distortions,” Eby said. “The more and more we rely on international students, the more administrations depend on that funding, the more they direct their programming decisions around what internationals will sign up for.

“(For example) international students are overwhelmingly choosing to study business in British Columbia,” Eby said.

As a result, we are seeing more business studies programs, many with new facilities, increased staffing and better research material, he said.

“The issue comes in when there begins to be a perception that the institutional resources are going to marketing and improving programs for international students instead of domestic students.”

Increasingly, said Eby, domestic students’ needs are taking a backseat to the “all important needs of the international student.

“And that’s putting the caboose at the front of the train,” he said.

It’s also a mistake, added Eby, to call for an influx of overseas students when many schools are already at capacity and would be hard pressed to accommodate them.

“Issues arise when the Premier, on the back of a napkin, decides all of the schools in B.C. — publicly funded ones like Kwantlen — should increase their international student population by 50 per cent by 2016,” Eby said.

That’s one major reason why KPU is hoping to find a suitable spot for a campus housing facility in Richmond where a portion of the international students could call home.

For students like Bruna Lopes, 24, from Brazil who is studying graphic design and English, that would beat renting a home with friends and classmates. But she enjoys being immersed in the Canadian culture which has helped improve her English language skills and confidence to be more outgoing.

“It is very important to get involved as much as you can,” she said. “That way it is easier for me now to get in touch, or approach people I don’t know and start a conversation. Those are skills I will be able to take with me when I go back to Brazil.”

But not all international students end up returning home. And it’s often an overlooked benefit of what international student programs can contribute, apart from their economic impact, said KPU’s Schinnerl.

And she dispelled and an “urban myth” the belief accepting international students can exclude domestic students from getting a classroom seat.

“It could not be further from the truth,” she said. “If we were running a section that was facilitated by 10 international students, we can open up a new course and 35 students can take it. That means 25 domestic students have a seat we wouldn’t have been able to offer.”

Moreover, 83 per cent of graduating international students at KPU apply for a Post Graduate Work Permit which can amount to a more attractive immigration process if they choose to take up residence in Canada, Schinnerl added.