In 2011, OUSA released a submission entitled Going Global: Supporting Ontario’s International Students in which we outlined a strategy to achieve Premier McGuinty’s stated goal of increasing international student enrolment by 50 per cent over five years. Among many recommendations, OUSA advocated that care should be taken to control international tuition fees, which are currently 3.5 times greater than those of domestic students.  International tuition was completely deregulated from 1996-97 and since 1996. Since then, international rates have increased at a considerably higher pace than domestic tuition, from approximately $4,000 to more than $18,000 on average in 2011/12.

The traditional argument in favour of higher international student tuition is that universities do not receive operating funding for these students, and thus must recoup all costs through tuition and ancillary fees. However, the current regime of deregulated international tuition fees has allowed universities to charge tuition well in excess of the combined tuition, ancillary fee and government operating revenue received per domestic students. In other words, on a per-student basis, universities receive more revenue from international tuition alone than they derive from domestic tuition and government operating grants combined.

How much more?

In 2011, OUSA estimated that universities were able to derive approximately $5,319 more in per-student revenue from international arts and science students than domestic their domestic counterparts. This estimation was derived from a combination of average international tuition fees, average domestic fees, as well as from revenue data on government grants divided by domestic enrolment. While this estimation yielded a rough understanding of how much extra revenue universities derive from high international fees, it had distinct limitations.

Thankfully, the 2010-11 public university financial information separates international and domestic tuition revenue, making a more accurate comparison of per-student revenue from international students and domestic students possible. Upon reviewing the data, the findings were striking. System-wide, international tuition accounted for approximately $514 million in tuition revenue in 2010-11, or approximately $19,219 per-international student enrolled at that time. In contrast, combined domestic tuition and basic operating grants from government accounted for approximately $14,539 per-domestic student. In sum, Ontario universities derived approximately $4,680 in additional revenue from each international student.

At individual institutions however, the revenue gap between international and domestic students ranged widely. In some cases, international students brought in as much as $8,000 in extra tuition fees. These differences are explored in the chart below.

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While the total revenue data does not take into account differences in program mix at different institutions (the government more heavily funds graduate programs and engineering programs, for example), it seems clear that on average international students are paying significantly more for the same education as their domestic peers. This data leaves us with the question of whether it costs $5,000 more to educate an international student, or if international students are being asked to unfairly subsidize the cost of education for domestic students.

In the most recent Ontario budget, the government announced that it would be clawing back $750 in operating funding for each full-time international student enrolled at an institution. This would not be operating funding for international students, since there currently is none, but rather general operating funding intended to educate domestic students. The government advised universities to correspondingly increase tuition fees to compensate for the loss of revenue.

While this charge is ostensibly part of an effort to better Ontario’s economic condition, it does so on the backs of students who have travelled here from around the world with no regulation protecting their costs. A few universities have already increased international tuition well beyond this $750 surcharge; the McMaster University Board of Governors has recently passed a $3,700 increase for international arts students, as well as a $6,000 increase for international commerce students; York University has also approved a $7,500 tuition increase for international commerce students. These increases are devastating to international students who already accepted their offers of admission, and now have to cope with a sudden increase in costs. In a context where international students at McMaster and York contribute $760 and $3,656 more in per-student revenue to their universities’ respective operating budgets than domestic students, these decisions seem particularly unfair.

It is unfortunate that taking advantage of deregulated international tuition continues to be an accepted practice in the pursuit of relieving our university and provincial financial constraints. These students already contribute so much to the Canadian economy and the university environment. Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade estimates that each international student generates approximately $1,560 in government income and sales tax revenue. Furthermore, it is well known that many international students become Ontario citizens at some point after graduation, meaning that they will contribute taxes for the rest of their lives. On a more university-specific note, it would be hard to claim that any Ontario institution is truly world class without a diverse mix of students from around the globe. International students raise the caliber of education at our institutions, bring valuable viewpoints to discussions, and make our institutions competitive within Ontario and the broader academic community. In an increasingly global market for university education, it would be a shame for Ontario to drive away international enrollment at a time when forging global networks is more important than ever.

In our 2011 report, OUSA estimated that the answer to the question “is international tuition fair?” was negative. Now that more complete data is available, we can do more than estimate.

With files from Brian Belman

Chris Martin
Director of Research
Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance