Cash-strapped public school boards across the country are looking far outside their catchment areas – and even across oceans – to fill empty seats in classrooms and solve chronic funding problems.
Recruitment of foreign students to study alongside Canadian kids in kindergarten to Grade 12 is intensifying as school boards realize that parents abroad are eager for their children be educated in Canada, and willing to pay $10,000 to $14,000 a year in tuition for the privilege. Many boards have marketing directors to visit educational fairs around the world.
Patricia Gartland, international marketing director for the school district in the Vancouver suburb of Coquitlam, brought in $16-million – 6.5 per cent of the district's operating budget – last year by attracting foreign students. B.C. leads the pack with about 14,000 international students in 2008, but Ontario, Alberta and Quebec are also popular.
Ontario's ministry of education said the province's public schools generated more than $40-million in tuition fees last year.
In Edmonton, tuition fees provide roughly double what the provincial government contributes for each domestic student in Alberta, said Ann Calverley, supervisor of the local board's international education program. About 70 per cent of the tuition fees are used to help pay for teacher salaries and language classes for new immigrant students, she added.
A 2009 study commissioned by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade put the number of international students in Canada's public schools at 35,000 in 2008 – an increase of 44 per cent from 1998. In addition to injecting millions of dollars into the school boards, foreign students contributed $700-million to the Canadian economy in 2008.
While B.C.'s education ministry encourages school districts to offer international programs, individual boards of education make the final decision. "At the end of the day, the success of these programs is based on the efforts the districts have made to promote, implement and operate them," said George Abbott, B.C.'s Minister of Education.
But Susan Lambert, president of the B.C. Teachers' Federation, said this extra cash is creating a two-tiered public education system. "Some school boards are making a lucrative profit, while others are surviving on a pittance."
She adds that international students cannot be considered a stable source of revenue. "Public education cannot be funded in this manner … something that can wane and ebb with the economic times."
Ms. Garland credits a targeted marketing approach to Coquitlam's success in luring students from the Asia-Pacific region. "Most people don't think they want to come to Canada and study in Coquitlam, of all places… in fact, I bet most people haven't even heard of us." She said she focuses on regions that have direct flights to Vancouver, and uses immigration opportunities and Canada's position as a global education leader as selling points. The school boards also help the foreign students arrange accommodation, often for an additional price, and generally facilitate their integration into Canada.
In Montreal, international students have provided Lester B. Pearson School Board with a solution for vacant school properties. Seigniory Elementary school, which was closed in 2006 due to declining enrolment, was converted into a dormitory for 96 international students, each paying around $11,500 a year to attend classes. A second school is set to undergo the same transformation.
Sonic Vheng, a Grade 11 student who has been studying at Pearson board since 2010 and lives in the Seigniory dormitories, said he enjoys going to school in Canada.
"I want to go to university here, and it's a much better education here than in China," he said.
Ontario's public schools reported more than 3,300 international students in the 2009-10 school year. The Toronto District School Board hired Barbara Brown as its marketing director in 2010.
"Our biggest asset is that we have this ethnically diverse community, so many international students will feel comfortable here," said Ms. Brown, the board's chief enrolment officer.
Dasha Boichenko, who came to Canada from Kazakhstan in 2008 to attend Grade 10 in Coquitlam, said she had not planned to stay for more than a year, but felt comfortable here and chose Simon Fraser University for post-secondary.
"I have a certain level of stability here in Vancouver. Moving somewhere else meant I would have to start all over again," she said.