The ongoing uncertainty surrounding the teachers' strike could deter foreign students from choosing B.C. for their studies and hit schools in the pocketbook, the chair of the Vancouver School Board is warning.
About 1,300 international students enrolled in the board's high school, elementary and continuing education programs last fall. They came from 30 different countries, nearly half from China. International students pay about $13,000 in tuition and contribute roughly $15-million in revenue to the Vancouver School Board each year.
(Read up on the issues and history of the education labour dispute with our explainer Q&A.)
"My concern is that these families will start looking for other options, because no one wants to send their teenager or child to another country to attend a school that might not be in session," board chair Patti Bacchus said.
That could mean a significant revenue hit to B.C. school boards, she said. The school board might have to lay off teachers and cut some courses from the curriculum to trim costs.
"And that impact could be fairly long-lasting because reputation really is everything," Ms. Bacchus added.
Currently, several countries compete for international students, promoting their programs to families at school fairs, particularly in Asia.
"B.C. has got a really strong reputation as a very reputable, reliable and respected school system that people know they can trust," Ms. Bacchus said. "So we have a strong brand in the international market that may suffer some pretty long-term damage if this situation doesn't get resolved."
International students have already started to feel some effects of the teachers' strike. Kanako Kuroda, a 16-year-old from Osaka, Japan, was supposed to attend an English language course offered by the Vancouver School Board this summer.
The program was cancelled, but Langara College was able to pick up the slack. The college is offering a four-week English language course for international students, and has taken on about 100 high school students from China and Japan who had been planning to attend the VSB program.
"We were pleased to be able to provide these groups with the opportunity to fulfill their dream of coming to Canada," said Valerie Peters, the manager of international education at Langara. "They're quite happy to be here."
The VSB had to refund students' fees for the cancelled summer courses, which it anticipates it will have to do for the regular school year if classes are not back in session in the fall.
"I expect that we would feel a responsibility to refund what they had paid and allow them to go elsewhere," Ms. Bacchus said.
With the fall semester drawing closer, other school boards are closely monitoring the strike situation and wondering whether their international programs will be affected.
Surrey Schools has about 850 international students who, in addition to creating an enriched cultural environment for local students, contribute roughly $9.5-million annually to the district's coffers.
"To date, we haven't noticed any abnormal patterns of withdrawals as a result of the strike action," said David Connop Price, a spokesman for the school district.
"It's something we're keeping an eye on, but we haven't noticed a change yet."
Spokesmen for the teachers' union and the B.C. government's bargaining agent said the sides spoke on Monday, but there has been no movement on the impasse.
Both sides have agreed in principle to mediation, but the teachers want it to start without preconditions, while the government has insisted the teachers adjust their demands first.