Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty's proposal to open up the province's education market is good. Foreign students add diversity to the classroom and interest to the society. Well-trained foreign students will be lifelong ambassadors for Canada and Ontario. However, large changes in policy can have dramatic impacts on the education sector, and should be made mindfully.
Melbourne and Toronto have much in common. Both were incorporated in the 1830s; both exploded in the subsequent 50 years; the streets and suburbs have eerily similar names; both are major cities in their respective countries; they are about the same size; they compete for movie locations; many say they have the same "look and feel."
They differ in one important respect. Melbourne is currently the second-largest educator of foreign students in the world, after London and ahead of New York.
Is this just the thin edge of the wedge?
Australia's conservative federal government from 1996-2007 drove this. Principally, it progressively reduced core funding to universities while allowing them to increase the number of "full-fee paying" places. At the same time, it allowed foreign students who had been resident in Australia for two years to apply for permanent residency. The result was an explosion in foreign students, first in the universities and then in private vocational colleges (where they often studied things like beauty therapy and photography). According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, there were 450,000 foreign students in Australia (population 21 million) by 2008, of which one-third were in vocational programs. Education is Australia's third-largest export industry, after mining and agriculture.
This has had a number of marked effects. It has become clear that the vocational sector and specialist secondary education providers need to be regulated much more strongly. A number of vocational programs appear to have been of dubious quality, and some colleges have closed in the past year, often after foreign owners had apparently stripped their assets.
Inside the universities, the changes have been dramatic too. There has been a reconfiguration of power. The schools that offer the courses most heavily subscribed by international students, such as business and marketing, now subsidize the rest of the university. Consequently, power has shifted away from schools Australians traditionally valued for studies in medicine and engineering.
The classroom experience has also changed. While the international students are generally bright and conscientious, many come from the Confucian education system, with its very high emphasis on rote learning, and very low emphasis on causal argumentation.
Furthermore, as far as Chinese students are concerned, English is basically a dialect of German. Given that English is about 60 per cent German, 30 per cent Latin and 10 per cent Greek, it is easy to understand why they might think this. But the key point is that learning in a foreign language is a dramatically different proposition for them than it is for Latin Americans or Europeans. Consequently, it is extremely difficult for faculty members to avoid changing their standards and style. This is a particular problem in subjects such as microbiology, where rote learning is a plausible, if inferior, option.
Finally, it has made the universities strongly dependent on foreign student income. A number of well-publicized attacks on Indian students - quite likely not a statistically significant increase, and also probably well below the rate at home - have combined with a soaring exchange rate to produce a dramatic fall in the number of applications from India. Several universities are reeling financially.
Twenty thousand new students, exclusively in Ontario's universities, won't create many of these problems. But then, it won't generate an education-led economic recovery either. Is this just the thin edge of the wedge?
Peter Cebon teaches at the University of Melbourne.