A push by Canada’s largest school board to ramp up student recruitment from its most lucrative international market is in jeopardy, after efforts to dissolve a controversial partnership with the Chinese government.

Roughly 75 per cent of the Toronto District School Board’s international students come from China. Over all, foreign students make up less than 1 per cent of the TDSB’s total student body, and there is an aggressive push to increase that number.

The TDSB sought vendors interested in operating a promotion and recruitment office in China, but received no responses. Education director Donna Quan told trustees this month in an internal e-mail, obtained by The Globe and Mail, that feedback indicated potential vendors saw working with the school board as “a risk.” She did not elaborate.

The agreement with the Confucius Institute, which is affiliated with China’s Ministry of Education, generated controversy because instructors are trained to self-censor topics that are politically taboo in China. In addition, former board chair Chris Bolton was the driving force behind the Chinese recruitment venture and the Confucius Institute, both of which did not receive approval from trustees, who were provided with minimal information.

Mr. Bolton abruptly resigned in June, five months before his term was to expire. That left trustees to deal with the fallout from the Confucius Institute agreement, including hundreds of e-mails and phone calls from parents worried over China’s control of the programs.

Several board members contacted by The Globe said the TDSB’s move to find a way out of the Confucius Institute partnership agreement is fuelling a backlash in China, where government officials had previously warned that suspending the accord would impair relations. Trustees voted on June 18 to delay the rollout of the culture programs. The deadline for bids for the promotion and recruitment office in China was June 26, according to a request for competitive tenders published on MERX, a central website for federal and provincial public tenders.

The Chinese embassy said earlier this week that it was not aware of the TDSB’s efforts to set up an office in China. In an e-mail response to The Globe, a spokesperson encouraged the TDSB to contact the embassy so it can “provide assistance accordingly.”

“We should never have got involved in this relationship from the very beginning [with the Confucius Institute],” said trustee Sam Sotiropoulos. “Now that it has happened, it has put us in a very precarious and difficult position going forward vis-à-vis our relations with probably our largest target market for international student recruitment.”

Trustee Pamela Gough believes the TDSB is perceived by the Chinese government as “a somewhat uncertain proposition.”

Ms. Quan declined to comment on the e-mail sent to trustees or to elaborate on who delivered the message that the TDSB was seen as a risk. In the note to trustees, she said that the TDSB would no longer pursue an office in China.

The TDSB embarked on this venture after piloting a marketing office in Beijing last year. The new office was to promote the TDSB’s programs to prospective students. The TDSB, like other school boards and universities, recruits students through agents based in China and whose commissions come out of tuition fees.

Many boards across the country struggle with declining enrolment and provincial budget cuts, and are trying to generate revenue by attracting international students, who pay thousands of dollars in tuition to attend Canadian schools. International students pay as much as $14,000 in tuition a year.

On the eve of a TDSB meeting in June to determine the fate of the Confucius Institute, Chinese officials wrote to trustees warning them against backing out of the board’s partnership with the Beijing-sponsored cultural centre, suggesting that doing so would hurt relations.

“If the Confucius Institute in Toronto was suspended,” says a letter from the deputy director-general of the Hunan Provincial Department of Education, “there would be a great damage to the relationship between the two sides, which is hard for us to accept.”

Charles Burton, a China expert at Brock University, said he is not aware that the TDSB has been blacklisted in China. Nonetheless, he said, Chinese agencies are “very sensitive to the political winds,” and they could be reluctant to get involved with the TDSB if there is a perception in China that its reputation has been “tainted.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Aug. 22 2014, 3:00 AM EDT
Last updated Friday, Aug. 22 2014, 3:00 AM EDT