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Ontario eyes tuition transparency in international student strategy report

International students should know how much they will pay for their degree when they register for a program, one of a suite of changes the Ontario government said it would like to see universities make in its international postsecondary education strategy report released Thursday.

Ontario has capped annual tuition increases for domestic undergraduate students in most bachelor programs to 3 per cent a year, but there is no such limit on tuition fees for international students. Average undergraduate tuition for international students is now approximately $33,000 a year, with some universities recently hiking international fees by 10 per cent annually for new students from abroad.

The estimated $1.3-billion in revenue may help the budgets of Ontario universities, but schools must ensure that international students face predictable costs, said Mitzie Hunter, the Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development.

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“We know that our postsecondary institutions have autonomy in setting their international tuition fees,” Ms. Hunter said. “What we believe is that once an international student enters a program they should have some sort of predictability from the start of the program to the end so they understand what the total cost is going to be.”

But the promise lacks details on how the government plans to mandate transparency in tuition bills.

“There is no indication that this would actually address concerns of predictability, that there is any mechanism in place to make institutions do this,” said Andrew Clubine, the president of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance.

OUSA has lobbied to have universities provide international students with the cost of their entire degree before they enroll. A survey by the group found that half of international students had difficulty meeting their tuition fee payments.

“It’s disappointing we didn’t see a full directive to institutions to ensure that an incoming cohort can predict what their tuition is going to be by the end of their degree,” Mr. Clubine said. “When your costs go up 10 per cent on $35,000, it’s not a trivial amount of money.”

Other student groups across Canada have recently taken similar positions. The B.C. Federation of Students has called on that province’s government to regulate tuition fees for international students.

The Ontario government will discuss how to implement the plan with universities, Ms. Hunter said.

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“We will be to doing this in conversation with institutions,” she said.

The report, which did not offer new financial commitments, also promised to develop strategies to send more domestic students abroad, recruit more international students to remote parts of the province and expand the number of countries from where Canada recruits.

The province’s new international-recruitment strategy has been developed over years of intermittent consultation with stakeholders in the sector. It was released as Canada is seeing record enrolment by international students, with an increase of about 40 per cent in 2017 compared with 2015.

Such a remarkable trajectory is unlikely to continue every year. China, which accounts for almost a third of international students in Canada, is pouring billions into its postsecondary education system and has doubled the number of international students it recruits to its own postsecondary institutions.

Ontario’s strategy emphasizes the importance of diversifying the countries where postsecondary institutions are recruiting, one way to reduce financial risk if the flow of students slows down.

We “want to make sure there is a balance,” Ms. Hunter said. “We want institutions to look at a range of locations of where students are coming from, and not to overly rely on any one country.”

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Ontario would also like to see international students head to more remote parts of the province, outside the Greater Toronto Area or urban centres. The province is already working with the federal government on a number of projects to draw immigrants to areas that need them and where housing and living costs may be lower.​

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