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The Need to Regulate International Student Tuition

On February 6th the University of Waterloo’s Board of Governors approved a predictable tuition framework for the 2018/2019 cohort of international students. This framework outlines plans to cap tuition increases at 5% from years 2 to 4, providing international students with the opportunity to budget accordingly and have a better understanding of their future academic costs. For this cohort of students, they will have a significant financial advantage over the rest of their international peers in post-secondary education: predictability.

Unfortunately, this is not the standard in Ontario.

Since the province deregulated international student tuition rates in 1996, it has become virtually impossible for international students to predict the overall cost of their undergraduate education in Ontario. According to our 2015 Ontario-Post-Secondary Student Survey, 49% of international students stated that they had difficulty meeting their annual tuition payments, debunking the myth that all of these students come from wealthy backgrounds. With these students already being forced to pay significantly higher fees, the lack of predictability year-to-year at institutions who have not set their own institutional cap creates a potential barrier to post-secondary success.

Stepping aside from the predictability aspect of this topic briefly, deregulated international student tuition is part of a larger systemic problem facing post-secondary education today. When the government deregulated tuition rates in 1996, provincial operating grants made up  approximately 60% of university operating budgets. In 2015-16, they made up only 40%. As a result, universities today have been forced to look at other sources of revenue to prevent operating shortfalls. This easily explains how between 2011-12 and 2015-16, total revenue from international student tuition fees doubled from $620 million to $1.28 billion. Universities are increasingly relying on tuition revenue over government grants, and the lack of regulation surrounding international student tuition, allowing for institutions to set these tuition rates arbitrarily.  

With international students accessing undergraduate education in Ontario’s university sector at substantial rates, we need to ensure that we are creating a post-secondary experience for them that is of high quality, affordable, and predictable. This segment of our post-secondary population should not solely be looked at as a tool used to fill funding shortfalls, but rather as a complement to the high quality education our institutions provide. International students contribute positively to our institutions in a variety of ways. They bring a diversity of perspectives and experiences to the classroom, and enhance the educational experience for our institutions. International students make up a meaningful part of our university communities.

As we await the release of the international student strategy that the Ministry of Advanced Education & Skills Development is developing, I wanted to echo a few thoughts about what steps I believe can taken to address this issue. Firstly, the government should heavily consider regulating international student tuition by cohort. This would not only ensure in-study predictability for international students, but would also ensure that in the current funding climate, universities would not be bottlenecked year-over-year due to funding shortfalls. Furthermore, the government should restore public funding to our universities, ensuring that none of our schools needs to rely on tuition revenues to make ends meet. This would allow for our institutions to view our students, both domestic and international, as their pupils, rather than revenue sources.

Does this seem too idealistic? Perhaps. But I do fundamentally believe that it is time we start looking at all of our students as students, rather than as revenue sources. Every student, whether they come from abroad or not, deserves to know the full cost of their education as they begin their studies.