Photo: Artem Maltsev via Unsplash

It was the first class of my first day teaching Introductory Sociology at Okanagan College. I had been told that most of the students were enrolled in a two-year diploma course in Criminal Justice. There were just over 30 students in the room. I began by asking, “How many of you are Criminal Justice students?” Almost all the hands went up.

“How many of you want to become police officers?” Half a dozen hands went up.

“How many of you want to become corrections officers?” A few more hands went up.

“How many of you want to work in community corrections services – like being a probation officer or work in a transition house?” Another half dozen hands went up.

I was perplexed. There was a huge gap between the number of people enrolled in the Criminal Justice program and the number of people with a career goal typical of the program. I pointed this out and asked, “Why are the rest of you here?”

From the back of the room, a hand went up slowly and tentatively. I smiled encouragingly. A young woman said very hesitantly, “To get a Permanent Resident visa for Canada.”

I agreed that this was a good and valid reason. About ten students looked very relieved. For these young people, this was indeed a good and valid reason for being in this program. The students were from India. According to the World Bank, the per capita GDP in Canada (2018) was $48,130 USD compared with $7,763 in India. Transparency International rates Canada as the 12th least corrupt nation out of 180 surveyed. India ranks 80th. A young person moving to Canada has made a choice that will very likely mean a better material standard of living and less unpleasantness such as the need to pay bribes.

These international students in my class were not alone. According to the Canadian Bureau of International Education, in 2018 there were 572,415 international students in Canada – up 154 per cent since 2010. Sixty per cent said they planned to apply for a Permanent Resident visa upon graduation. This means my students were among the 350,000 people sitting in classrooms for the purpose of gaining permanent entry to Canada. If collected in one place, they would create the sixteenth largest city in Canada.

I understand why these young people desperately want to become part of Canada – and I think they help make this country a better place for those of us who had the good fortune to be born here. As a college instructor, what I have trouble with is a system that makes them pay large amounts of money to colleges and universities as the price of admission. Our colleges and universities have become a combination of immigration gatekeeper and extortionist. We have created a situation in which tens of thousands of young people, if they want to immigrate to Canada, are forced to pay thousands of dollars and waste a few years sitting in classes they have no occupational or intellectual interest in, and for which they are often inadequately prepared.

In my classes, the student path to becoming a resident of Canada resulted in a row of scared and confused young people sitting in the back of the classroom desperately hoping that I would give them a passing grade. Many of them were unable to gain any actual learning from the experience. This was not the fault of either them or me. It was a consequence of our postsecondary education system becoming a tollgate for admission to Canada.

So why do colleges and universities aggressively recruit tens of thousands of students who have no real desire to go to school for either intellectual or occupational reasons, and who often lack skills that are prerequisites for actual learning?

The movie All the President’s Men about the Watergate scandal popularized the slogan “follow the money.” It’s good advice. To show the monetary motivation for colleges and universities, I’ll speak from my experience, the Sociology classes I taught at Okanagan College in the winter 2020 semester. Let’s “follow the money” in my classes:

I taught four classes with a total of exactly 100 students. Sixty-five were “domestic” – that is, either Canadian citizens or permanent residents. Thirty-five were international students.

Each domestic student paid $347 for the privilege of listening to me talk and having me grade their exams and assignments. Each international student paid $1,416 for the same somewhat dubious privilege.

Total revenue for the college from these classes was $72,164. The domestic students generated $22,604 in revenue while the international students generated $49,560.

My compensation for teaching these courses, including benefits, holiday pay and the employers’ contributions to CPP, EI and WCB was $28,651. For the college, this was the cost of “me” as an intermediate product necessary to earn $72,164. The college needs “me” in the same way that a grocery store needs cans of beans to sell groceries.

My teaching generated $43,514 in revenue for the college over and above what I was paid. This pays for other costs such as administration, utilities, registrar office, promotion, libraries, janitorial services, security and so on.

If you view “me” as the product being resold, the markup as would be calculated by retailers was 60.3 per cent. If there had been no international students, the college would have lost money on the sale of “me.”

Some markup is essential if a retailer is to stay in business. The magnitude of the markup varies by industry. It’s estimated that the average markup for new car dealerships is about 10 per cent, for grocery stores about 15 per cent, for jewellery stores about 50 per cent, for restaurants about 60 per cent and for clothing stores over 100 per cent. The markup on “me” as a product was thus very close to the markup on food by a restaurant.

Many young people who want to emigrate to Canada are forced to attend our postsecondary educational institutions as the price of a Permanent Resident visa. They also have to pay much more for this than do domestic students. This higher price dramatically improves the retail margins of colleges and universities. If the international students in my classes had paid the same tuition as domestic students, the markup on “me” as a product would have dropped to from 60.3 per cent to 17.6 per cent. In order of magnitude, this is similar to the difference between buying food in a grocery store and buying it a restaurant. The difference is that grocery stores and restaurants add different amounts of value to the foodstuff. Not so in college classes. International students are paying restaurant prices for grocery-store food.

Colleges and universities across Canada have become addicted to the revenue provided by international students. Without these students, colleges and universities would be smaller and less affluent. The ability to extract high revenue from international students does not have to do with the education being provided, but with the difference in living standards between Canada and countries such as India and China, combined with immigration regulations that provide a back door to the normal points-based screening process for economic immigrants. Colleges and universities are part of an extortion system that includes immigration consultants, traffickers and others.

The addiction to the revenue generated by international students is very dangerous to the colleges and universities. It has helped bloat the size and cost structure of these institutions beyond what is needed to meet Canadian requirements. A change in immigration policy or a reduction in international income gaps would cause a painful day of reckoning. The drop in the number of international students generated by COVID-19 may trigger abrupt and severe budget crises in our colleges and universities.1

An ongoing debate about the purpose of postsecondary education has been based on the dichotomy between education as a means to provide occupational training and education as a means to help develop students as whole people and citizens. This is a pointless either/or debate, since both objectives are meaningful. However, in the past decade, our colleges and universities have become a lucrative back-door bypass to the official immigration system – which surely should not be the goal of postsecondary institutions. But “following the money” is hard to resist.


1 Sadiya Ansari, Can Canada’s Universities Survive COVID? Maclean’s, September 18, 2020.