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Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.Paul French/Diamond Schmitt Architects

Brock University is increasing its financial support of international students who are pursuing a doctoral degree, part of what is likely to be a wave of such announcements as Ontario universities benefit from increased provincial funding to help recruit and support the world's most talented students.

The university in St. Catharines, Ont., already provides fellowships to cover all but $3,500 of the tuition fees international students must pay. Starting in May, it will raise its support to cover the rest. The initiative will make the university more accessible to a wider variety of students from different countries, said Jamie Mandigo, vice-provost for enrolment management and international.

"We are seeing a lot more interest from developing countries, from northern Africa … from Latin American countries," Dr. Mandigo said. When they finish their degrees, these students will be able to benefit their home countries, he added. "That's an important role we as a university can play. We have a social obligation to disseminate knowledge worldwide and education can be that catalyst of revitalization in all parts of the world," he said.

Brock is the second university in Ontario to bolster efforts to draw highly qualified students by making graduate education more affordable. Last month, the University of Toronto announced that international students pursuing a PhD will be charged domestic tuition fees.

The measures come in the wake of changes to provincial funding that increase the money available to support international PhD students. In late October, Ontario told universities in a letter that they could use 10 per cent of the grants they each receive for domestic graduate students to cover the costs of enrolling more international students. Research-intensive universities, such as McMaster and the University of Toronto, can use 15 per cent.

The decision means that the province will be funding more than 1,200 international PhD students across Ontario, up from 133, for the next three years. To be eligible for the grants, however, universities must charge international PhD students domestic tuition fees. Almost a third of the spots are allocated to the U of T, which has the highest number of PhD students in Ontario.

Universities have lobbied to gain financial aid for international graduate students for years, arguing that they have had to turn away candidates who would end up contributing to Canada as citizens.

A recent study from the University of Toronto found that almost half of its international PhD graduates become permanent residents.

Ontario will soon release a new international strategy that aims to respond to those criticisms, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development said.

The strategy "will help provide international students with a high quality postsecondary experience … and expand learning opportunities for domestic students who interact with their international counterparts on campuses across the province," said Tanya Blazina.

Most Canadian universities, including Brock, already provide fellowships and grants to their domestic PhD students that cover tuition and also provide a stipend or salary for teaching duties.

Canadian universities are seeing growing demand from international graduate students for a spot here. Last year, applications for PhD programs were up by 50 per cent at McMaster University, 41 per cent at the University of Waterloo and over 80 per cent at the University of Alberta, among others. U.S. universities are experiencing lagging interest with applications for PhD spots almost flat and master's applications declining for the first time in 10 years.

"Canada is seen as a top destination, it's safe, it's inclusive, it's accepting," Dr. Mandigo said.

Other jurisdictions help their universities support international students. Alberta does not differentiate between domestic and international students in its university funding; Germany and Norway, among other countries, offer free or almost free bachelor degrees to all students, regardless of their citizenship.

Ontario's new commitment will make it easier to respond to growing interest from abroad, said Doug Welch, vice-provost and dean of graduate studies at McMaster.

"We start making offers in January and knowing that we could plan for this [September] was a huge benefit for us," Dr. Welch said of the province's commitment. McMaster already provides all graduate students – domestic and international – with fellowships and other grants that exceed the cost of tuition.

The university is now considering how it can use the increased flexibility from the province to help recruit foreign doctoral candidates.

"We are actively exploring changes to how international student fees are charged," Dr. Welch said. "We intend to be among the most competitive institutions."