“Fire fighting”: the impact of Canada’s international student growth laid bare

Published 28/11/2018

“It has been explosive. It has been explosive for our faculty and our support staff and for the community at large as well,” related Jim Whiteway, director of international education at Loyalist College in Belleville, ONT.

Whiteway summed up the talking point of the recent flagship national conference for international educators in Canada – how does an institution best manage explosive growth?

With well publicised statistics showing that nationally, international student numbers were up by 17% in 2017 (and up by 34% since 2014), it was the topic that everyone could bond over.

“Four years ago, we had 40 [international] students and this January, we will hit a thousand,” Whiteway told The PIE News.

His tale of stratospheric growth was not unusual, but it highlights the huge shifts that many Canadian institutions are trying to adapt to as their international student populations have risen to above 30%, above 50% – in one case –  across the campus.

Diversification of student nationalities was the easy win that many educators noted to in workshop-style discussion groups, setting caps in place for each nationality, sometimes for the first time.

Beyond that, many institutions are expanding staffing, especially in student support roles; increasing min. language level expectations to ensure they are only accepting the best quality of application; and conducting campus-wide conversations about what their approach to international should look like.

“It has been fire fighting, to be quite honest. At this point, it has been fire fighting,” reported Whiteway.

“A lot of it is going back to basics and working with faculty to understand the student [needs]”

Nevertheless, he noted that, given that the position of director, international was only created three years ago within a two-person department, now there are nine people in his department and counting.

“There is still an identified growth [in staffing] that is required and a focus on ‘how do we support the needs that students have’,” said Whiteway. “A lot of it is going back to basics and teaching and reteaching and working with faculty to understand the student [needs].”

He added that with increased revenue, “we are able to build our support systems relative to those increases. So, I have a very free hand in terms of how we grow but that has been done in consultation with the entire community to identify where are the immediate needs and then the vision of where we are going to be in 2,3,5, 10 years.”

At Humber College in Toronto, dean international, Andrew Ness, added, “When I started in the business decades ago, the head of admissions at the university said to me, it takes five times the effort to say no than it does to say yes – and the growth has reminded me of that quote because we have to be so much more deliberate and careful about equity and about fairness and about diversity. Just as a function of this massive demand.”

He said Humber was tangibly managing the growth via people and process, adding staff, utilising technology better and looking into mission requirements when assessing entry standards along with the need to be “extremely transparent and communicative”.

“I do not think we are doing it as well as we need to yet but we are on a trajectory towards getting there.”

On Vancouver Island on the west coast, Mark Herringer, executive director of international education at North Island College, concurred with many others on the need to set caps.

“As of this week, we have started working with our domestic enrolment team and our international enrolment team to set our targets clear and clean and to make sure we are setting our enrolments in a way that we can manage our capacity and our ability to serve students properly,” he related.

Several stakeholders mentioned the need to be mindful and supportive of the employment intentions of a large part of the new student cohort, particularly among the Indian student population.

And more precise counselling around what plagiarism is and what is expected of a student who is very much self-guided in their studies was another topic.

“The services were working when we had a smaller number and now they’re not”

Nancy Blain, a counsellor at Georgian College in Barrie, ONT, related that the growth seen at this institution “basically made us stop in our tracks and re-evaluate our services, because the services were working when we had a smaller number and now they’re not.”

She elaborated, ‘It’s hit and miss if we’re getting the numbers that we need for orientation so we have to rethink – we’re actually looking at a different delivery model.”

Finally, engaging local chambers of commerce that represent local businesses and people in the community was another tactic mentioned by more than one delegate, encouraging them to understand what an influx of students can bring, but also considering if they represent diaspora who can build links with newly arrived students.

Whiteway, who said he sat on his local chamber of commerce, commented, “We are providing human resources that were not available in a city of 60,000 people that was not really going anywhere noticeable in terms of growth.”

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