Ontario colleges over-reliant on international student fees

Ontario’s Auditor General has warned that reliance on international student fees to buoy the books of 24 publicly funded colleges spread across the province is a “risky formula”. In 2020-21 international students accounted for 68% of total tuition fees collected, and at CA$1.7 billion (US$1.3 bilion) contributed CA$100,000 more to the colleges than the government of Ontario, Canada’s richest and most populous province.

In the report released last week, Auditor General (AG) Bonnie Lysyk also revealed that as the number of domestic students has declined by 15%, the number of international students has skyrocketed since 2012 by 342% to 104,937 – fully 30% of the province’s college students.

She was equally alarmed that 62% of the international students came from a single country, India. At 6%, China is next on the list, followed by Vietnam at 4%.

“[A] high reliance on international student enrolment by public colleges poses risks outside the ministry’s and the public colleges’ sectors of control,” wrote Lysyk in the report, Value-for-Money Audit: Public colleges oversight.

The “potential loss of a large number of students if individuals from one country were to suddenly not be able to obtain study visas or otherwise be restricted from entering Canada”, as happened during the 2020-21 academic year because of COVID-19, is especially concerning.

Colleges of applied arts and technology

Established in 1965, the Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology (CAATs) originally provided technical education, such as welding and car maintenance, in addition to replacing the nursing schools that had been attached to hospitals; as well, the CAATs provided business education and early childhood education.

Through their general arts and sciences departments, the colleges provided a pathway toward university for students who were not yet ready for the rigours of four-year institutions.

As needed, new programmes, for example computer science, were added to keep the colleges up to date with their mission, defined in the Ontario Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology Act (2002) as offering “career oriented, post-secondary education and training to assist individuals in finding and keeping employment, to meet the needs of employers in the changing work environment and to support the economic and social development of their local and diverse communities”.

Financial woes

Two decades ago, the Ministry of Colleges and Universities authorised the offering of applied baccalaureate degrees (BAs). The word ‘applied’ was dropped in 2009. By 2012, 12 CAATs offered 74 BAs. In 2020, the CAATs offered more than 450 BAs.

Algonquin College in Ottawa, where I taught for 30 years, offers 29 BAs in such fields as interior design, commerce (e-supply chain management), hospitality and tourism, information technology, photonics and laser technology, and building science, as well as two bachelor of science in nursing degrees in conjunction with the University of Ottawa. In 2020, of the 23,754 students in BA programmes, 2,863 of them were international students.

Each of the CAATs has a designated ‘catchment area’ from which they traditionally drew most of their students. Confederation College in Thunder Bay, on the western end of Lake Superior, is the largest, covering some 550,000 square kilometres of Northwest Ontario, an area larger than France.

Years of underfunding by governments of several stripes has resulted in Ontario’s colleges receiving the least full-time equivalent support in the country: CA$10,000. By contrast, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Nova Scotia provide approximately CA$22,000 per student, while Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada’s poorest province, spends approximately CA$16,500 per full-time student.

Compounding the CAATs financial difficulties was the decision of the Progressive Conservative Government of Premier Doug Ford in 2018: a 10% tuition cut and a subsequent tuition freeze that is still in effect. Both decisions were driven to mollify students and others who were complaining about high student debt upon graduation.

In a statement included in Lysyk’s report, the four colleges that were selected for in-depth audits said: “The Auditor General’s report has shined a timely spotlight on the issue of inadequate financial support for the college sector in Ontario. At the heart of the issue of the growth of international enrolment is chronic and historical underfunding by the provincial government.”

International students to the rescue

In order to make up the shortfall caused by dropping enrolment, frozen tuition fees and low government support, colleges have turned to the international market.

A number of colleges, including Algonquin, began offering programmes abroad. Algonquin runs animation programmes in three countries: in India through a partnership with Manav Rachna International University in Faridabad; in Johannesburg through the National Electronic Media Institute of South Africa; and in China through Shanghai University.

Not all foreign ventures have helped fill Algonquin’s coffers. After a four-year run from 2013 to 2017, Algonquin’s campus in Jazan in Saudi Arabia not only failed to generate the expected CA$20 million but actually cost the college CA$6.2 million in losses and fees for getting out of the contract.

In an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) at the time, the then vice president of innovation and strategy, Doug Wotherspoon, put the best gloss on the foreign venture: “We’ve implemented the most challenging academic curriculum to the least prepared students in the country and that has led to us not being profitable.”*

Bringing international students to Ontario has been a politically safer and more lucrative endeavour. The province allows each college to set the tuition and other fees for international students. System-wide, their tuition averages just over CA$11,000 more than does an Ontario student’s. At Seneca College in Toronto, the system’s largest with 36,940 students, 10,863 international students pay CA$14,260 compared to the CA$3,571 tuition for Ontario students.

Nineteen colleges earn more than half of their tuition revenue from international students. Eleven earn more than 70% of their tuition revenue from international students, while two earn more than 90%.

With 92% of its tuition dollars coming from foreign students – 99% of whom come from India – Northern College in Timmins, 700 kilometres north of Toronto, is the most exposed to the vagaries of international student enrolment. The nine other colleges at which Indian students make up more than 80% of international students are also overly exposed to one source of students.

In an interview with CBC after the AG’s report came out, Linda Franklin, president and CEO of Colleges Ontario, noted that the colleges had turned to international students to make up for declining provincial funding and the drop in the number of domestic students, and that the colleges were overly reliant on one country’s expatriate students.

“We are doing what we can to diversify the number of countries that we’re drawing international students from,” she said.

Sarom Rho, who leads Migrant Students United, which is part of the Toronto-based Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MSU-MWAC), agrees with Franklin that the province’s colleges are vastly underfunded. But her focus was on how that underfunding leads to much higher tuition fees for international students and how this impacts upon their lives.

“The numbers in the [AG’s] report are very clear and telling. What we see is a cash grab that targets the racialised poor and working-class families around the world, especially black and brown families from the Global South,” said Rho.

Public-private partnerships

Nine of the AG’s 26 recommendations deal with the recruitment of international students and public-private partnerships between Ontario’s publicly funded colleges and private for-profit (PfP) colleges – an arrangement unique in Canada – that in 2021 had enrolled more than 24,000 international students.

In keeping with the Ministry of Colleges and Universities' (MCU’s) mandate to “strengthen Ontario’s northern and small communities by encouraging international students to study outside the Greater Toronto Area and potentially remain there after their studies”, 11 colleges have partnerships with 12 PfP colleges that have facilities in smaller communities and in the province’s north.

The curriculum is supplied by the provincial colleges, such as Cambrian in Sudbury, Niagara in Welland or St Lawrence in Kingston, with graduates receiving the public college’s credential.

Under the “Public College-Private Partnerships: Minister’s Binding Policy Directive” (2019) the ratio of international students at a PfP is not to exceed 2:1 with the public college the PfP is partnered with. However, the MCU allowed the establishment of “legacy enrolment limits” that allowed PfPs to choose any semester in 2018 or 2019 as their baseline.

The MCU’s goal, Lysyk wrote, was to “incentivise public colleges to continue recruiting international students to their home campuses and local communities”. In short, the more international students Lambton College or Mohawk College, for example, recruited for their campuses in Sarnia or Hamilton respectively, the more students the PfP colleges they had partnered with could enrol.

Since each student the PfP taught with the public college’s curriculum resulted in the PfP remitting money back to the public college, the more students a PfP taught, the greater the benefit to the public college.

Five of the six partnerships the AG audited in depth exceeded the 2:1 enrolment threshold. As of August this year, only three colleges had submitted plans to the MCU on how and when they would return to the mandated ratio.

Work and immigration opportunities – or not

Under federal regulations, an international student who graduates from a public college is eligible for the Post-Graduate Worker Permit Program (PGWPP) which, depending on the programme a student studied, grants the graduate one to three years’ temporary immigration status to work. This leads to the anomalous situation that makes PfP “very beneficial for private career colleges since graduates of private career colleges would otherwise not be eligible for the programme”, notes Lysyk.

In contrast to the many stories of well-off Saudi Arabians who come to Canada to study medicine or Chinese students who come to study engineering or computer science at the province’s premier universities, Rho notes, most of the students at Ontario’s colleges come from families who have perhaps sold some land, or made other sacrifices – such as taking out loans – so that their children can come to Canada.

These students, whom the MSU-MWAC refers to as “migrant student workers” because they take the same sorts of low wage jobs other migrants do – such as stocking shelves or serving coffee at Tim Hortons, Canada’s national chain of coffee and doughnut shops – in order to pay the much higher tuition fees, are taken advantage of by Ontario’s colleges.

According to Rho, the forces that cause migration, including educational migration – such as the climate crisis, economic crises, war, imperialism and economic devastation – form what amounts to a pipeline to Ontario’s colleges and universities as well as post-secondary institutions in the rest of the country.

They are part of a “system in the Global North that is saying, ‘Come study here. You will get permanent residency status. You can build a better future here.’ That’s the dream that’s being sold. There are forces in their home countries pushing them out. And then, there’s the shiny mantle of these schools and immigration systems that has temporariness embedded in its logic.”

However, while the PGWPP might work well for graduates of medical school who transition easily to residencies or for high demand fields in engineering or finance, the situation is very different for college graduates.

Many of these students, especially now during the COVID pandemic, have found themselves unable to find work in the fields they studied and, thus, have had to take jobs that the federal government classifies as ‘C’ or ‘D’ because they are viewed as low-skill and thus are low-paid.

These jobs do not count toward obtaining permanent residency status. Last year, Rho told me, because of the shutdown of large parts of the economy, some 52,000 international students faced deportation because they were unable to find work in either the ‘A’ or ‘B’ classifications.

Having explained this in bureaucratic language, Rho then turned to explain what difficulties were faced by individuals who found themselves thousands of kilometres from home and the family that sacrificed for them to come to study at Canada’s colleges.

“One of the things we were hearing from migrant student workers last year was, ‘My work permit is expired or is expiring within the next month. I've been laid off from my job because of the pandemic. I've sent 600 job applications and no one wants to hire me. I can only find jobs that are essential or low wage but are not counted toward permanent residency. What do I do?’”

After representations by MSU-MWAC and other groups, Rho says, the then minister of immigration, Marco Mendicino, allowed a one-time renewal of PGWPP’s expiring at the end of 2020.

“Because it was a one-time authorisation,” says Rho, “it’s happening again as the window is closed.”


The CAATs have responded to the AG’s report by, once again, pleading with the MCU for more financial support and, through Colleges Ontario, stating their desire to diversify the number of countries that they draw international students from.

Further, having seen how the coronavirus disrupted education and other sectors, the colleges told the AG that they wanted to work with the MCU to recognise that all “metrics, whether in the control of the institutions or not, are intrinsically tied to the dynamic, external events that can impact performance in positive and negative ways”.

And, thus, the metrical formula should allow that “in some cases, a lowering of targets… set up reasonable conditions for success”. The colleges that were named for not submitting financial reports on time have pledged to do so in future.

The MCU responded to the AG’s 26 recommendations within the report. After saying that it was aware of the key challenges and issues outlined in the AG’s report, the MCU continued that the government “is committed to supporting a more innovative, sustainable and responsive post-secondary education system to fuel Ontario’s global competitiveness as we move forward during this challenging time”.

On the report’s key finding, “the risks public colleges [run] relying highly on the tuition revenues from international students from one country” and the absence of plans to mitigate this risk, the MCU responded first by underscoring the importance of multiculturalism in Ontario’s post-secondary sector and then pledging to “review these recommendations as part of its [MCU’s] considerations in the development of an international post-secondary education strategy”.

For her part, Rho’s reaction to the report was to show how its findings fit into the larger plight of Canada’s black and brown migrant student workers – issues the AG and MCU avoided. These students are, she told me several times, exploited by schools, bosses and landlords.

The stresses experienced in these areas of their lives, as well as by the temporariness of their immigration status – and that which comes after their graduation – combined with the stresses of the COVID pandemic to cause a mental health crisis.

“We know of at least six international student deaths by suicide in this year alone,” she told University World News.

* A number of faculty, myself included, opposed Algonquin opening a campus in Saudi Arabia because the kingdom’s politics and immigration policies were inimical to the college mission statement’s commitment to equity and inclusion; as well, they ran counter to both the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Ontario’s human rights legislation.

First, the campus was a men’s only campus. Second, Saudi Arabian law prevented myself – one of the college’s senior English professors, and a Jew – as well as professors who were Evangelical Christians, who must have a Bible to read from each day, from entering the country. The Faculty Union also opposed the creation of a campus in Saudi Arabia.