Protesters join a demonstration organized by teachers’ unions outside the Ontario Legislature, in Toronto, as four unions hold a province-wide education strike on Feb. 21, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Canada’s high schools are underfunded and turning to international tuition to help

Despite months of work to rule and weeks of concentrated job actions, the Progressive Conservative government in Ontario has failed to negotiate a deal with teachers to date.

Amid news about negotiation sticking points, such as class size and mandatory e-learning, a key issue at stake is that education has been chronically underfunded at the tax base. In fact, Ontario, like other provinces, is increasingly relying on private revenue streams as a solution.

Last month, the Toronto Star reported that the Doug Ford government “planned to slash school board spending while creating courses to sell to other jurisdictions at a profit.”

Such a tactic would hardly be a new strategy. It should rightfully be seen as part of broader funding trends that provinces have quietly adopted into strategic plans and policies presented under the umbrella of international education.

This means increasing student and teacher global awareness and competencies through curricula and student exchanges — and also increasing how much international revenue supports Canadian school systems through recruiting international students and exporting Canadian curriculum abroad.

The push to license Canadian curriculum abroad reflects a larger trend in Canadian education to grow educational “export services and explore new opportunities abroad.”

The Toronto Star recently reported that high school administrators in Ontario and British Columbia have noticed a significant increase in international students.

These students are international citizens who have been recruited to Canadian high schools. Like the growing numbers of international post-secondary students studying in Canada, these students are leaving their home countries and families behind in order to pursue their education.

International revenue

In 2015, Ontario released a policy strategy for K-12 international education. It cites four goals, including future-oriented learning, growing programs for international students to attend K-12 schools, sharing Ontario curriculum globally and expanding pathways to post-secondary schools so students will continue to live and work in Ontario.

The policy explicitly notes that school boards are actively recruiting international students “in response to issues of declining enrolment in some areas, or as an additional source of revenue.”

Fostering a sense of intercultural awareness, communication and respect in school communities is critical today — and indeed, much of this can be bolstered through quality programs, teaching and investment in students’ equitable opportunities in their local schools. International exchange can also be a significant and beneficial learning experience.

But one concern is that this recruitment of children from around the world has evolved in a context where neoliberal educational reforms of the past several decades have eroded tax funds for public education, lowering per pupil spending, and forced school boards to supplement their revenue.

Schools are increasingly forced to justify their outcomes and budgets on the basis of international [global standards like PISA. (Shutterstock)

Boards are under pressure to do more with less. Even as cuts to education occur, schools are increasingly forced to justify their outcomes and budgets on the basis of international global standards, like the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Program in International Student Assessment (PISA). In this socio-economic climate, Canadian provinces’ welcome of international high school students looks like marketing.

Such changes in how school boards are funded raises questions about the short-term and long-term costs to students, families and Canada’s educational policy vision.

$16,000 high school tuition

As of 2015, there were 19,000 international students in Ontario K-12 schools. The Toronto District School Board’s annual tuition for international high school students is $16,000.

This tuition amounts to significant revenue streams. International students paid $5.3 million to Edmonton Public Schools in 2018-19. The Vancouver District School Board budget reported nearly $28 million in tuition from international students in 2019. Calgary District School Board disclosed revenue nearing $20 million.

Canada promotes the fact that “there are many elementary and secondary schools around the world that offer the curriculum of one of Canada’s provinces.”

There are 125 elementary and secondary schools licensed to offer Canadian curricula internationally. For example, Ontario is selling its curriculum to 19 partner institutions internationally, with a view to expanding.

From communities to consumers

One problem is that these international exchange programs downplay their potential impact on broader networks and public systems in Canada and globally.

Ontario and other provincial governments want to see international revenue supplement public education. (Shutterstock)

As a nation, Canada is richer than ever. Yet funding for public education from the provincial public coffers is increasingly contentious. In Ontario, the Conservative government insists that it has increased education funding, but the amount the province provides in per-pupil funding has decreased.

By chipping away at the collective will to fund schools through taxes by creating alternative funding streams, Canada is eroding education as a public good and replacing communities with individual consumers.

By doing so, the divide between rich and poor worsens. For example, with acceptance of the idea that private funds should pay for education, fees function to keep formerly public school programs inaccessible to some members of the public. Such divides can perpetuate damaging inequalities from one generation to the next.


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At the same time, the growing sense that being equipped for the global economy means education is about completing modules and meeting standardized levels of productivity has set the perfect stage for cutting budgets by reducing teachers and forcing students into online learning.

It’s not difficult to imagine how online learning curriculum in Ontario classrooms marketed beyond the province could be the next money-maker.

School boards should not have to turn to revenue sources outside of the tax base in a country that is committed to excellence in public education.

Impact on international students

In 2018, CBC reported that a lack of regulation in the industry supporting student home stays and lodgings may leave some youth vulnerable. Right now, the lack of publicly available data on international high school students who are unaccompanied minors studying across Canada is troubling.

The question of accountability to and for international high school students is particularly relevant given that studying as a minor in Canada is sometimes positioned as a long-term pathway from secondary to post-secondary education or is accessed as a route to citizenship.

The Globe and Mail flagged the impact on students when they encounter the false promise of entry into post-secondary education as a route to citizenship from education brokers or agents abroad — but what of high school students? For younger students, who have had even less time to accumulate the educational and professional accomplishments needed for permanent residency status, disappointment might be even harder to weather.

Research and public awareness efforts in support of international students are needed. If Canadian provinces use international programs simply to subsidize funding gaps, it will ultimately damage confidence in school safety and value. Public education in Canada needs to be public in spirit and practice.

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