Canadian universities are trying to salvage the incoming class of international students as travel restrictions, quarantine rules and the move to online learning threaten to disrupt what has become a crucial revenue source.

Chauffeur service to a quarantined room, catered meals, daily health checks with a thermometer for every student, even the possibility of chartered flights to get students to Canada – all are on the table as institutions prepare for the fall term.

The financial stakes are significant. In a little more than a decade, the number of international students attending Canadian universities has tripled, to nearly 500,000 in 2019, representing about a quarter of all new university enrolments, according to a recent StatsCan report.

With international students typically paying tuition fees two to five times higher than Canadian students, they now contribute roughly $6-billion a year to Canadian postsecondary institutions – half of all tuition revenue at domestic institutions. As provincial government funding to universities stagnated over the past decade, those fees have paid for rising institutional and labour costs.

Over all, universities are bracing for a potential drop of 10 to 35 per cent or more in international student fees – on top of revenue already lost to cancelled conferences and shuttered recreation facilities.

Some schools are at greater risk in the short term – particularly those that have taken a lot of international students in recent years. While universities across the country have seen growth in international student enrolment, it has been notably high in parts of Atlantic Canada. Cape Breton University, for example, is nearly two-thirds international, and Saint Mary’s in Halifax is nearly one-third. At Dalhousie, tuition revenue is projected to decline by between $30-million and $50-million this year, primarily because of the loss of international students, who make up 22 per cent of the student body.

The University of Toronto also relies heavily on international fees – one in four of its students come from abroad – and detailed plans have been drawn up to get them from the airport into university dorms or even hotel rooms so they can quarantine for the mandatory two weeks. The university is willing to book hundreds of hotel rooms, if need be. But it will also prepare special quarantine kits for every incoming student, including a thermometer for daily temperature checks. All their meals and other amenities would be delivered, with students required to speak via video once daily with a health professional. The university said it’s still examining how to provide testing for the virus or its antibodies at the start and end of quarantine.

“It’s a big project, but it’s an incredibly important project, given the talent pipeline that these students represent,” said Ted Sargent, vice-president, international, at U of T.

It’s not clear, however, how all these services – including the hotel rooms and meals – would be paid for. U of T and other schools have been speaking to federal and provincial governments about securing additional funding, but so far, there’s been no agreement. “It’s clearly not going to be a small cost,” said Prof. Sargent, suggesting the province, the federal government and the university could share the added costs of quarantine for incoming students.

With roughly two months until the start of classes, universities have plenty of logistical hurdles to overcome – not least whether students will even be allowed to enter the country. “It’s still too early to tell what travel and health restrictions will continue through the months ahead,” according to Immigration officials. Currently, only students with a travel permit issued before March 18 are allowed to enter Canada.

It’s not clear how many visas have been issued since then. Processing has been slowed dramatically by the pandemic and universities still don’t know whether those with permits issued after mid-March will be allowed to cross the border for the start of classes. Universities Canada, the agency that represents schools at the federal level, said it has been told the department can process a surge of applications quickly, but time is running out.

Families overseas are also likely trying to determine whether it’s safe to travel and whether there’s any value in paying for a year in Canada with so much lingering uncertainty around how much of the education will be delivered online. Students can begin their studies online in their home countries, but many universities worry students won’t be prepared to pay high tuition fees without the Canadian experience attached. One survey by a British higher-education consultancy this spring showed more than half of international students planning on coming to Canada intended to defer admission for a year.

“We’ve got to find a way of making this work,” said Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada. “We’ve got to make sure it’s safe and secure and that we don’t have setbacks that would impact on our international reputation. The level of interest on the part of international students in Canada remains very, very strong.”

Although COVID-19 poses a threat to Canada’s gains in the international student sector, Canada could emerge stronger compared with other countries. The United States, for instance, said this week that students attending universities that don’t offer in-person classes will have to return to their home countries, sparking an outcry. It has also made it more difficult for foreign students to obtain work visas after graduation.

The Canadian government, meanwhile, recently announced a key policy adjustment designed to aid international students, ensuring those who begin their studies online from abroad won’t be penalized with shorter postgraduate work permits. That’s a significant factor for those attracted by the prospect of being able to earn Canadian wages to offset the cost of the degree and who hope to use the experience as a springboard to gain permanent residency in Canada.

Nonetheless, one recruitment agent based in India said he has recommended to some students that they consider starting their courses online at home and waiting until winter 2021 to travel to Canada.

Sushil Sukhwani, director of Edwise International India, said he expects to send 30 to 40 per cent fewer students to Canada this year due to the pandemic. In some cases, students are concerned that even if they do get into Canada, classes will be primarily online, meaning they’ll be spending thousands of dollars on accommodations and other amenities when they could be studying from home.

He also said many students worry that with unemployment high in Canada, they won’t be able to find part-time jobs to offset their living expenses. In a survey of several hundred clients, he found a little more than 40 per cent were willing to consider starting their Canadian studies online from India.

“I tell parents that if you are worried about these things, then start with the online option and wait for things to settle down. That way, their costs are lower, and they don’t run the risk of not getting a part-time job,” Mr. Sukhwani said.

At Thompson Rivers University (TRU), international students make up about 17 per cent of the student population. Baihua Chadwick, associate vice-president, international, at TRU, said she anticipates a drop in international enrolment for the fall – but how big is still difficult to say.

“That’s the $10-million question, and maybe a lot more than that,” she said with a laugh.

Her best estimate is that TRU will enroll 30 per cent fewer international students this fall. One of the reasons she foresees a drop is because so many visa applications haven’t been processed by Canadian immigration officials.

“Visa offices were closed, particularly in our major source countries. Now some of them have opened, and we’re seeing visas being issued very slowly, which is a major concern for us,” Ms. Chadwick said.

There is also a sense that Canada’s deteriorating relationship with China, damaged by the fallout from the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, could trigger a drop in students from that country. China has for years been Canada’s top source country for university students, and Ms. Chadwick said she’s seeing fewer of them applying to TRU than in the past.

Already a number of applicants to TRU in China have been rejected by Canadian government officials for reasons that remain unclear, she said, and students who travelled to Canada were even turned back at the border.

“Even if you just have a few students being returned or denied entry, the word spreads like wildfire,” she said. “And so [international recruiters] will be advising their students not to attempt” to travel.

Travel could also be difficult because of the relatively small number of international flights still operating. TRU and other universities have looked into booking their own charter aircraft to get students to Canada. But the price quoted was a hefty $500,000 a flight, Ms. Chadwick said, and for now they’ve decided against it.

Instead, the university plans to greet arriving international students at Vancouver airport, whisk them directly to waiting buses and drive four hours to campus in Kamloops, where the students would quarantine for 14 days.

Haonan Deng, 23, is an international student who plans to attend TRU in the fall. He had intended to return to China after graduating with a degree in business in June, but the depressed economy persuaded him to enroll in a master’s degree program at TRU, even though it will be delivered online.

As a member of the school’s Chinese student association, he’s been in touch with prospective students weighing whether they should travel to Canada in September. He said the main concern he encounters is from students worried that if they stay home and begin their studies online, they could still be rejected by Canada when they apply for a visa once it’s safe to travel. Mr. Deng added that some kind of guarantee from the government – assuring students they’ll eventually be allowed to enter Canada to complete their studies in person – would be welcome.

“They want to know how they will complete their degree,” he said.

The Globe and Mail, July 11, 2020