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The ranks of international students have been growing on campuses across Canada, but a once-tiny Nova Scotia school has benefited more than most. How did CBU triple its foreign enrollment in two years, and how has it been changed in the process?

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At Cape Breton University's Sydney campus, international students Juwel Jacob and Akhil Kizhakkekara take a moment to catch up.Photography by Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

The first visible sign of Cape Breton University’s transformation was the lineup for the bus. Passing motorists craned their necks to stare at the clusters of students waiting on street corners, sometimes as many as 10 to 20 at a time. The community had never seen anything like it.

Hundreds of new international students, mainly from India and China, began arriving in Sydney, N.S., last fall, and they’ve kept coming ever since.

Their presence represents a massive shift for Cape Breton University. Once a tiny regional school imperilled by declining enrolment, CBU is now a growing centre for international education.

Its explosive growth triggered a local housing shortage, and forced the university to hire more staff and hunt for additional class space. The university even had to buy the town more buses.

The number of international students at CBU increased more than threefold in 24 months. At a time when revenues are flat elsewhere, its budget swelled by 37 per cent. The school nearly doubled in size. It also crossed a crucial threshold: two-thirds of the university’s students, a super-majority, now hail from abroad.

What has happened at CBU is not only changing one community. It’s the most dramatic example of a trend sweeping the country: the enormous expansion of international student enrolment.

In just over a decade, the number of international students in Canada has tripled.

That growth has coincided with a shift in the way universities are funded. Across Canada, government funding has stagnated even as costs have risen. One way to bridge the resulting funding gap is via international student fees, which are typically two to six times higher than domestic tuition.

But how does embracing foreign students change a university? What’s the right mix of domestic and international students? What’s a fair price for a Canadian education? Canadian institutions are all wrestling with how to manage what they call “internationalization.”

None has gone as far as CBU.

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National flags from around the world hang over CBU's student centre. In 2019, about two thirds of the student body was from abroad, a massive increase from previous years.

Cape Breton University, until 2005 known as the University College of Cape Breton, sits just off the highway linking Sydney to Glace Bay. It’s a small, modern campus connected by lush lawns and covered passageways to protect pedestrians from coastal winds.

The campus showpiece, the Great Hall of the Student Centre, bursts with the colour of dozens of national flags.

International students are not new at CBU, but the surrounding community has remained closely tied to its Gaelic past even as immigration has transformed other parts of Canada. According to the census, immigrants make up just 1.8 per cent of the local population, about a tenth of the national average. The median age is a decade older than in the rest of Canada.

The university campus, by contrast, looks very different these days.

Cafeteria tables buzz in half a dozen languages. The student shop stocks popular Indian and Chinese snacks. The local cinema swapped Hollywood films for Bollywood a few days a week to boost business. The entire student council is made up of international students. The men’s soccer team, a campus rallying point, has risen to the top of national rankings with a team that’s almost half international students.

On the first day of fall classes, students dressed in variations of tight jeans and plaid shirts, some in orange CBU gear, greet each other with hugs and slide into plastic chairs to chat. In some spots, Chinese and Vietnamese students sit together; in others, they mingle with Indians and Canadian-born classmates. Students from Punjab gather near the Tim Hortons; South Indians occupy a patch a few metres away.

The international students are 60-40 male, almost the opposite of the 57-43 female-to-male ratio in the Canadian university student population.

They tend to come from relatively well-off families. A large portion already have undergraduate degrees from their home countries. They come to study business, engineering, tourism and public health, among other subjects, often in shorter post-graduate programs. They found CBU either through recruitment agents paid by the school or via their own internet searches. One student said she saw photos of the Cabot Trail on Instagram and was sold. Another said his grades were too low for bigger schools. Some say they wanted a small-town experience. Almost all said the possibility of immigrating to Canada was a major draw.

About half the international students are from India. The next-largest cohort is from China. Students from both countries say the Cape Breton countryside, clean air and slower pace of life make a seductive change from the clamour and pollution of the world’s most populous countries.

Sristi Sharma, a 19-year-old biology student with a part-time job at Walmart, comes from a family of teachers in Haryana, Northern India. She says she was introduced to the idea of CBU through a recruitment agent. Like many of her friends, her ambition is to become a Canadian. First she must graduate, get a job and then apply for permanent residency.

“I think 99 per cent of the Indian students want to stay in Canada,” Ms. Sharma says.

At the turn of the millennium, CBU’s student body was about 85 per cent Cape Breton-born. Enrolment was flat or declining, and due to decades of unfavourable demographic trends, it was likely to stay that way.

The population of Cape Breton county, the island’s largest district, peaked in 1961 at about 132,000. Now it’s 95,000. The coal and steel industries dried up long ago, and young people have moved elsewhere. The population aged 19 and under, the target market for universities, is projected to drop by 20 per cent in a little more than a decade.

By 2016, CBU was a university in crisis. The administration claimed it was in such dire financial straits it would have to lay off faculty, which is almost unheard of in Canada. The atmosphere was miserable.

The university decided to chart a new course.

David Dingwall, the former Liberal cabinet minister famed for saying he was entitled to his entitlements, was appointed president in early 2018. In a region accustomed to managing population decline, he promised growth. So far, he has delivered.

Mr. Dingwall, a compact, energetic figure and raconteur, recalls a job interview at which he expected a gentle academic interrogation. Instead, he found himself surrounded by “alligators” who questioned his vision for the university, he said. He told them to hire someone else. They hired him anyway.

When he took the job, he was advised that 3,800 students was a sensible enrolment target. He cruised right past that to more than 5,500 today. “And rising,” he nearly shouts. Then he reins in his enthusiasm and backtracks. He wants to keep expanding, he clarifies, but there have been growing pains. These are good problems to have, he emphasizes, but the plan for now is to pause to allow the university’s infrastructure to catch up.

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CBU president David Dingwall, middle, speaks with international student Lalit Singh, left, and Darren MacDonald, director of the school's Innovation and Entrepreneurship Centre.

The big shift began last fall. With the help of agents based in China, India and elsewhere, the school opened its doors. More than 1,100 new international students arrived from dozens of countries.

But many of them turned up at school without having arranged housing. The residences filled up, and the administration appealed to the community to take on boarders. Hundreds did, including a priest who welcomed four Indian students as rectory roommates, according to the local paper. Rents rose due to the sudden jump in demand.

“This institution was not built for what happened last September,” says Gordon McInnis, the university’s vice-president of finance. “The broader community wasn’t built for this either. To put this in perspective, we increased the population in Cape Breton county by about three to four per cent last year, overnight.”

And then there was transit. Buses were packed. Local riders grumbled. In some cases, students couldn’t get to class. The region didn’t have the funds to rapidly adjust, so the university offered to buy them new buses.

“Somebody had to,” Mr. McInnis says. It cost more than $350,000, but, as he puts it, students not getting to campus was a potential “show-stopper” for the international strategy.

“I know that transit never, ever worked in this community. As of last September, it became viable. Transit ridership is off the charts,” Mr. McInnis says.

The new students have brought in a lot of money – the school’s budget went from $57-million to $79-million in a year. But there are also costs associated with growth. The cafeteria has to be expanded. In a year, more than 95 new staff have been hired, 45 faculty and others in support roles to help the international students navigate life in Canada.

There have also been issues with what the school calls “academic integrity.” A number of staff say there have been issues with students who seem unfamiliar with Canadian standards for academic citation. The school has added resources to its writing and research help centres and, in the pre-departure orientation seminars it runs in India, has made a point of discussing the dangers of plagiarism. They also plan to roll out a module on academic integrity that students would have to complete before getting access to online course materials.

“We’ve had some challenges, and we had to deal with one last year – a serious situation,” Mr. Dingwall says, referring to those same concerns over academic integrity.

Scott Stewart, a CBU professor and former faculty association president, says language barriers have created problems in some cases that have forced professors to change the way they teach.

“There’s no way that you can keep the exact same curriculum, if you’ve got … a large proportion of your students who struggle with English language skills,” Prof. Stewart says.

“I changed assignments to make it so that students had to write much less. They could write short-answer stuff and not essays. We went over things much more slowly. None of these things are necessarily bad in and of themselves. But it certainly creates a change.”

Brian Tennyson, a historian who has taught at CBU, and its predecessor, for more than 40 years, says that in his experience, the students are capable but struggle with the language.

“Their writing skills are shaky. You have to cut them a lot of slack,” Prof. Tennyson says. “You can decipher what they’re saying, but you have to be a little generous. They are in a second language, though.”

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Gobindpreet Singh, a first-year business administration student from India, stops to take a picture from the top of Kellys Mountain in Cape Breton. He is en route to his serving job at the Keltic Lodge in Ingonish, part of a partnership with CBU.

Cape Breton is known as a centre of Gaelic culture and its thriving tourism sector trades on a rich tradition of music and song. Many families trace their history back generations to the Scots who came to Nova Scotia during the Highland Clearances.

But the university also wants to emphasize a less trumpeted history of multiculturalism. They point to the working class community of Whitney Pier, just across the tracks from Sydney, an area where black people, Jews, Ukrainians and others settled in the days when the steel plant ruled the local economy. It represents a tradition of welcoming new immigrants to build Cape Breton on which the university hopes to draw.

“We’re not afraid of brown people. We’re used to them. Whereas some other institutions aren’t,” Mr. Dingwall said.

It’s an unusual way to frame the issue, particularly for a university trying to woo students from around the world.

But Mr. Dingwall recognizes that, with such a large influx of foreign students, it’s important for the university to maintain the support of community. So far, the feedback has been positive, he said.

"Let me put it this way: The community is asking us to do this. The community wants international students.”

No other Canadian university has crossed the 50 per cent foreign-student threshold. Even the largest foreign-student cohorts are in the 30 per cent range. CBU is an outlier.

Prof. Stewart said some programs, particularly in business, engineering and public health, are heavily populated with foreign students. There’s a danger that the students themselves will feel that they aren’t getting what they thought they paid for.

“I've talked to a lot of our Indian students and as they put it, they didn't come to Canada to sit in a classroom that's almost entirely filled with Indians. They came to get a Canadian education in a Canadian university,” Prof. Stewart said.

Mr. Dingwall said he doesn’t know why other universities haven’t gone as far as he has on internationalization. “Some of them are going to be forced to do it. If they want to exist,” he says.

The university-age population, those between 15 and 24, has peaked and is now beginning to decline across almost the entire country. As those numbers shrink, it will put pressure on university budgets, which provincial governments have been reluctant to expand. One of the few tools universities have to generate revenue, other than seeking donations, is to welcome more international students.

“Universities in Canada, generally speaking, are in trouble,” Mr. McInnis said. “The inconvenient truth is that the university model across this region, and I suspect across this country, is unsustainable. People don’t like to talk about it, but that is the reality."

Campus confidential

If you’re an international student thinking about studying in Canada, check The Globe and Mail’s latest annual report on university education to compare more than 70 institutions across Canada.

Madeline Harpell, 19, is a second-year student who grew up in Cape Breton. She chose the local university, known colloquially as the “high school on the highway,” because it was close to home and she won a scholarship. She’s one of about 1,200 Cape Breton students among the 5,500 in the student body.

When she arrived for her first classes last fall, the sudden change to the school’s makeup caught her by surprise. “It was very shocking,” she says, but in a nice way, she adds quickly. She came from a high school with very little diversity and found herself, unexpectedly, surrounded by people from all over the world.

“It opens your eyes to new perspectives and parts of the world we wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to,” she says.

She doesn’t really have friends among the international students, she says, but has worked with some in group projects, and it went well. The ideas and input were fairly distributed, but as the native English speaker, more of the writing burden fell to her, she says.

There are some who aren’t as happy to see the influx of international students, but they won’t say so to a reporter, she says. She’s heard people complain about crowded hallways and the difficulty finding housing. In her case, though, her mother was able to rent a property to four international students for a higher price than she initially sought.

“A lot of people, it’s not that they’re close-minded, but Cape Breton is very traditional,” she says.

Over the course of a decade starting in 2008, the number of foreign study permit holders in Canada more than tripled. Today, it stands at more than 570,000 and shows no sign of slowing. It grew 16 per cent last year and 19 per cent the year before that.

As part of its immigration strategy the government of Canada aims to convert university students – who have recognizable credentials, who know the languages and the country, who have already begun their adaptation – into citizens.

Since 2011, the number of new permanent residents who previously had a study permit almost tripled, to more than 53,000 in 2018. In Nova Scotia, a region where immigrants have not settled in large numbers, the number was nearly five times higher in 2018 than in 2011, and on pace to grow again in 2019.

One of the big attractions for international students is Cape Breton’s comparatively low tuition price. It’s just a little more than $17,000, roughly half of what it is at bigger Canadian schools.

The university’s recruitment targets areas of the world where the middle class is growing and where there’s a demand for international credentials. India is the biggest market, followed by China, and more recently they’ve been looking at Rwanda, Nigeria and Senegal, as well as parts of Latin America.

The school has also introduced a number of two- and three-year programs that appeal to students who’ve already earned a degree in their home countries. Many of the students from India, for example, arrive as graduates, whereas students from Africa, Vietnam and Eastern Europe tend to come straight from high school.

About half of the students who apply eventually get in. Some don’t meet the entrance requirements, but the biggest hurdle is getting a study permit from Citizenship, Immigration and Refugees Canada. It’s a crucial step in the process. A Canadian visa officer vets the applicants, assesses their finances and credentials, and verifies their identities.

For a majority of international students at CBU, the long-term goal is to become a resident of Canada.

“Nova Scotia has one of the best immigration programs for international student graduates in Canada,” says Victor Tomiczek, who works in enrolment at CBU. He’s referring to the Atlantic Immigration Pilot (AIP). Under the AIP, graduates can work after they leave school and, provided they have full-time work and can pass a language test, they have a very strong likelihood of being granted permanent residency.

One big question, for those concerned about the region’s economic health, is whether the newcomers will stay in Cape Breton.

“Immigration is not our core business. Population strategy is not our core business. But it’s a part of our business,” Mr. Dingwall said.

All around Sydney, people talk of a community transformed. In fast-food restaurants and discount retailers, the workers are likely to be international students. There are bustling Asian grocery stores and new restaurants launched by some of CBU’s international grads. More than one international student says Cape Bretoners have approached them in stores to tell them how pleased they are to see immigrants in Cape Breton.

Damien Barry, general counsel at Louisbourg Seafoods, a large Cape Breton processor, says his company has benefited enormously from the influx.

“Without international students this year, we would’ve been in serious trouble,” Mr. Barry says. The jobs in seafood processing are often hard, physical labour and difficult to fill. In the past, the company has used temporary foreign workers but would much prefer to hire international students, who by law are allowed to work 20 hours a week in term time and longer in the summer. He says they’ll help some apply for permanent residency.

“They’ve been a breath of fresh air. They’re very appreciative of the opportunity,” Mr. Barry says.

Many students say they’d like to stay in Canada. Some aim to live in Cape Breton; others say Halifax, with its larger economy, is their likely destination. And many, still in their early 20s, aren’t sure where they’re headed next or how Cape Breton will fit into their plans.

Lily Cao, a recent CBU graduate, comes from a city about an hour outside Shanghai. She earned a marketing degree from a Chinese university but wanted to go abroad afterward.

“As Chinese people, we have to compete with somebody for everything. To get good marks, a university place, a job." Life in a massive country was a grind, and she wanted room to breathe.

This is how she assessed her options in the international marketplace: “The U.S. is not so nice, so cross that one off. Australia, they think Chinese people want to conquer them economically. It’s all over their newspapers … So, no. Britain, very hard to get into.” That left Canada.

A recruitment agent told her that CBU was a good university, and that she could pass the tourism and hospitality program without much difficulty. “And then you can get a job and apply for residency. So that’s my plan,” Ms. Cao said. She and her husband and young child packed up and moved to Cape Breton. Her husband took care of their child while she studied full time, starting with an English-language program to lift her fluency so she could enroll in the tourism program.

Now she works the night shift at a hotel desk and studies an English language textbook in the down times, readying for the test she’ll need to pass to become a permanent resident. That would allow her and her family to put down roots in Cape Breton.

It’s taken years to get this far, she says. Just one step remains.

Editor’s note: (Oct. 9, 2019): An earlier version of this article incorrectly said David Dingwall was appointed president of Cape Breton University in early 2017. In fact, it was early 2018.

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