University Spaces Easier To Find If You’re A Foreign Student

University spaces easier to find if you're a foreign student
B.C.'s hardworking applicants find the door shut in their faces

Pete McMartin
Vancouver Sun
Published: Thursday, February 07, 2008

A parent I know — she's a colleague of mine — tells this story of her daughter's attempts to get into university:

Three years ago, after spending two years at Langara, her daughter applied to UBC for the general arts and sciences program.

She so desperately wanted to get into UBC — or as her mother put it, “She was in love with the idea of it, it was her dream” — she would drive out to UBC from Langara and do her studying in the UBC library just to immerse herself in the feel of the place.

She had a 3.18 grade average, a B-plus.

She was rejected.

Her grades were not high enough.

She then applied to SFU.

Some time in the summer before school started, my colleague's daughter received a letter from SFU stating that her application had been accepted. There was one thing that was odd about the letter, though:

She had been accepted as an international student.

Something — and neither mother or daughter still don't know what — gave the admissions people at SFU reason to believe she was an international student.

When she phoned the SFU registrar's office to say, no, she wasn't an international student but a Canadian citizen, SFU asked that she fax the school a copy of her passport to prove her Canadian citizenship.

This she did.

Some weeks later, in a subsequent phone conversation, my colleague's daughter learned that — oops — SFU did not have a place for her after all, that her grade point average did not meet the criteria, that space was limited, that blah blah blah see ya later alligator.

My colleague hit the roof.

She phoned the registrar's office.

She demanded to know why SFU had room for her daughter as an international student, who as such, she noted perceptively, would have to pay the exorbitant international fees universities crave, but it did not have room for a hardworking kid who had lived here all her life.

More blah blah blah emanated from the other end of the phone line — grade point averages didn't meet criteria, full classes, etc., etc. — none of which deterred my colleague. She kept phoning the registrar's office (and what an exercise in humiliation that must have been.) It was after what she figured was her fourth call that SFU waved the white flag. Her daughter got her acceptance letter a week before classes started.

Her daughter graduated from SFU last year.

An egregious, isolated case?

There is no way to tell. But its details, I think, speak to larger issues facing B.C.'s institutions of higher education. More to the point, it speaks to the trials of the students trying to gain entry into those institutions.

For one thing, there is the universities' growing appetite for international students, who have become academe's new cash cows. My colleague's question was pertinent: SFU can make room for an international student but not for a kid who has grown up here?

For another, there are the stringent standards — both academic and financial — that students here are held to now. Here was an eager student with a high B average. Yet even with a steadily declining school age population — the primary reason the provincial government gives for closing schools — she still can't get in.

Finally, there is the question itself of the purpose of a tax-funded local school. Who should it serve? Should its own prestige be pre-eminent to its purpose — thereby being able to demand an increasingly narrow portion of “the best and the brightest from around the world” as one academic put it to me — or should our post-secondary institutions be there primarily to serve us, the taxpayers who fund them? Should it be their job to educate as many of our local children as they can?

I — a narrow provincial who believes it is our schools' job to produce the most educated workforce it can, and the rest of the world can go to hell — would argue that locals come first and international students can have what's left over, if anything. Yes, I know that this would probably do irreparable harm to UBC and SFU's international reputations, and I don't care. Taxpayers, largely, pay the shot: as many of them as possible should get first dibs.

The schools themselves, however, don't necessarily feel this way. At UBC, the international student population was two per cent in 1990; it is now 9.8 per cent. The school expects to raise that to 15 per cent by 2015. Since international studies pay full fees, that cash cow is being milked for all its worth.

And according to the front page story Wednesday in The Sun, written by the paper's education reporter Janet Steffenhagen, any caps for international students here may disappear. Steffenhagen interviewed Emery Dosdall, a former deputy education minister who heads a new provincial government office charged with improving relations between B.C. and Asia-Pacific countries. Dosdall told Steffenhagen that the province wants to aggressively attract more international students, and that he doesn't see why there should be any limits on international students.

“Competition is the world today,” Dosdall said. “Will there be spots for our kids? I believe there will be . . . [but] they also need to compete because our institutions should not lower standards [for them].”

Well, yes, competition is the world today, and Dosdall's seeming pragmatism in the face of it sounds reasonable enough — that is, if it weren't so obtuse and short-sighted.

For one thing, competition is great if the playing field is even. But it's not. The tax burdens we carry here are far greater than what a family in, say, Hong Kong might carry.

There is also this: In Canada, the criterion for paying domestic or international fees is made on the basis of citizenship, not residence. That is, if you happen to be one of the 200,000 or so — ahem — Canadian citizens living in Hong Kong, you or your child pay domestic tuition fees at a Canadian university, not international fees.

Meanwhile, those of us back home still pay large amounts of taxes that have gone, in very large part, into making our post-secondary institutions the world-beaters they are today. We have paid for all our school's capital costs, not international students or citizens of convenience. We have donated the majority of the fat endowment funds our schools are now sitting on. (UBC's is over one billion bucks now. What do they do with all that money?)

Yet our schools feel no fealty should be paid to the taxpayers who literally built them?

Or that they have no obligation to educate as many British Columbian students as possible, not just now but very far into the future, too?

Meanwhile, our brains trust feels our schools should get busy educating Asia's entrepreneurial and professional classes?

Well, of course, because competition is the world these days, and given enough time, our schools — who can't be bothered with B-plus students — will help that world run right over us. or 604-605-2905