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COMMENTARY: Canadian universities rely on foreign students. What if China called its students home?

Dalhousie international students call for reduced tuition after virus moves classes online
Several universities have announced they are moving all in-person classes to online in the upcoming fall term. An international student at Dal is calling for reduced tuition.

There are 140,000 Chinese students in Canada. If China orders them to come home, perhaps because of the detention of Huawei heiress Meng Wanzhou and other perceived slights, the consequences for Canadian higher education could be devastating.

Ann Fitz-Gerald, director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ont., and Dick Fadden, who was once Canada’s top spy, believe that Canadian universities are particularly vulnerable if relations between Beijing and Ottawa deteriorate further because the schools have become reliant on China for students and their money.

READ MORE: Coronavirus — International students worry as decisions loom on travel to Canada

“Are we too dependent? Yes,” said Fitz-Gerald, who returned to Canada last year after a long stint as a senior academic in Britain. “Is this good for Canada? It is good to have Chinese students in our classrooms but it is not good to have lower representation of students from other parts of the world.”

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Fadden, who was once former prime minister Stephen Harper’s national security adviser, agreed with Fitz-Gerald that universities were particularly exposed because of the amount of money that China was spending on Canadian universities.

“They pay high fees so, in some cases, we are way too dependent,” he said.

Chinese students spend about $4 billion annually in Canada. Of the more than 642,000 foreign students who studied in Canada in 2019, 22 per cent came from China. (India is home for the largest percentage or 34 per cent of Canada’s foreign student population).

B.C. teachers face layoffs as international students expected to stay away
B.C. teachers face layoffs as international students expected to stay away

When weighing the pros and cons of enrolling so many students from China, Fitz-Gerald said it had to be remembered that “the networking, informal interactions and friendships that are formed in Canada go with them when foreign students return to their home countries. It is important for Canadian universities to have friends flying their flags in the capitals of like-minded and not so like-minded partners.”

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Fitz-Gerald, who has served as a security adviser to the British government, feared that a withdrawal of Chinese students from Canada might become an existential issue for some Canadian schools, particularly when combined with the severe financial problems they have been facing because of the economic fallout from the novel coronavirus pandemic.

She cited Laurentian University’s recent announcement that it faced a shortfall this spring of at least $15 million for the coming fiscal year.

The problems of the university in Sudbury were “a real warning sign” of the financial squeeze that may be looming for other institutions, Fitz-Gerald said.

“Even without the China issue, we are facing tough times at our universities. We may well see some close or some faculties close, especially those that don’t capitalize on the opportunity to pivot to tackle tomorrow’s world.”

READ MORE: Australia prepares to reopen doors to international students in July

The issue was dramatically highlighted last week when a leading Chinese university recruiter threatened that Beijing might ban 110,000 Chinese students from Australia and the $2.9 billion that they spend at the country’s eight top-ranked universities.

The warning came after Prime Minister Scott Morrison led calls for an international investigation in what and when President Xi Jinping’s authoritarian regime knew about COVID-19 and whether it shared that information in a timely, responsible way with the world or sat on the information for several crucial weeks beginning last December.

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“If Australian politicians don’t regret and keep being the running-dog of the United States in the name of so-called values, Chinese tourists and students will not go there,” said Amy Mo, who sends 2,000 university students to Australia every year, using stark language straight out of a Cold War textbook.

“I hope Australia can change its attitude toward China. If a country loves Chinese money but doesn’t like Chinese people, China surely is not willing to do business with it.”

READ MORE: China won’t respond to pleas to ease tension after call for coronavirus probe, Australia says

Australia has already been reeling from Chinese agricultural sanctions triggered by Morrison’s remarks about finding out more about the origins of COVID-19. They were followed by Chinese accusations that its students in Australia were in danger of being violently attacked. Mo added further fuel to the fire by suggesting Chinese tourists, who numbered 1.4 million and spent about $11 billion in Australia in 2018, could be ordered to avoid Australia in the future.

China has become infamous in recent years for practising notoriously hardball diplomacy. Since winning office in 2015, the Trudeau government has tried hard not to offend Beijing.

Doing so became much trickier 18 months later, however, when the RCMP detained Huawei’s Meng pending an extradition hearing to the U.S. to face serious fraud charges. China responded within days by kidnapping two Canadians, eventually admitting that it had done so in retaliation for Canada’s having stopped Meng in Vancouver as she tried to transfer to a flight to Mexico.

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Meng decision impact on Canada-China relations
Meng decision impact on Canada-China relations

If Meng is extradited, a further deterioration in China-Canada relations is almost a given. Withdrawing students en masse, as Beijing is threatening to do to Australia, is just one of the ways it might retaliate.

There is no clear answer on how China would respond if relations with Ottawa worsen, Fadden said. “But they have a variety of tools in their kit to hurt countries. Tourism is one. There are a couple of parts of Canada that would be really hurt by that. They could also stop investments in Canadian companies.

“I think a country like Canada — Australia is another — has to decide how much it will put up with.”

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With the global economy seriously stressed by COVID-19 and uncertainties about studying in Britain caused by Brexit, Fitz-Gerald said that Canada, which was blessed with many good universities, had a chance to broaden its intake of foreign students while lessening its dependence on students from China.

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“Canada has never had such an opportunity to rise up and exert leadership in certain areas and tertiary education is one of them,” she said. “It should be regarded as an important instrument of soft power.”

One of the things that was missing was a federal minister of education to help the country fully capitalize on its potential as a magnet for overseas students because education was handled by the provinces, she said.

“We’ve pioneered a lot of innovation in the country. Other regions around the world would like to benefit from hearing more about the stepping stones Canada has used to get from A to K or A to Z. We must get much more sensible about a national strategy for not just bringing students here but projecting our wares overseas.”

Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas