Editor’s Letter: How Ontario schools lure and abandon international students

Editor’s Letter: How Ontario schools lure and abandon international students

Our postsecondary institutions are raking it in by attracting students from China, India and beyond. But the situation they face on arrival is rarely as advertised

Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth

Conestoga College’s pamphlet for foreign students is a master class in seduction. The Viewbook, as it’s called, is lush with eye-popping numbers and images of cheerful transplants from China, India, Tanzania and beyond. The Waterloo region is presented as a wonderland of higher education, one that teems, as we learn on page two, with “bustling nightlife, affordable housing and public transit.” Were I a prospective student in, say, Delhi, Changsha or Manila, I’d be on the first plane out.

What I would discover upon setting foot on campus, however, would be soul-crushing. Kitchener, like Toronto and the rest of the GTA, is in the midst of a housing crisis that forces new arrivals, who are often on tight budgets, to live in squalor. One Conestoga student from India had no choice but to bunk with 13 other students. Last January, police discovered 25 international students crammed into a basement apartment in Brampton. Many of these students rely on food banks, and some spend their evenings driving Ubers to make ends meet. So much for bustling nightlife.

Coaxing students into attending your school when they are unlikely to find adequate housing is at best wilfully blind and at worst heartless. But many post-secondary institutions feel they have no choice. After Doug Ford’s government cut and froze domestic tuition in 2019, schools leaned harder than ever into the international market. Conestoga has led the pack, granting acceptance to 30,395 international students last year, but Fanshawe, Niagara and Seneca colleges each welcomed more than 11,000. These students shell out between three and 10 times the rate domestic students pay, which represents a financial bonanza for the colleges. Last year, post-secondary institutions in Ontario raked in an estimated $8.1 billion from inter­national tuition. (Conestoga posted a $106-million surplus, its highest ever.)

Seneca College accepted more than 11,000 international students last year. Photo via X

The housing situation has received plenty of attention, but as Simon Lewsen reports in his feature “The Perilous Lives of International Students,” the problems extend beyond shelter. The students who arrive here are often alone and vulnerable, which makes them ripe targets for bad actors.

In 2017, hundreds of students from India received acceptance to Canadian colleges only to discover that most of the letters—the review is ongoing—were fake. Several of those students were deported as a result. Many students get defrauded by predatory landlords. Others get taken advantage of by employers looking to extract free labour. Others still are targeted by sexual predators who think that, because these kids lack friends, family and support networks here, they’re easy prey. And a startling number of students, mostly from China, have been kidnapped and held for ransom.

The situation, in short, is a mess. Recently, the federal and provincial governments both capped the number of international study permits. But it’s a dull-hatchet response to a problem that requires precision instruments. Optically, it also served to punish foreign students, which misses the point. These kids encountered the affordability crisis; they didn’t cause it. And while the province has introduced some protections for international students, what’s most desperately needed is more places to live. The National Housing Accord aims to build two million units across Canada by 2030, and Ontario intends to build 1.5 million units by 2031, which are positive signs. Yet, while we’re waiting, the crisis will claim even more victims.