On International Students as Imported Venture Capitalists

A frequent contributor responds to my observation that Ontario’s proposing to enter into a highly competitive market for attracting international students, against other institutions that are better funded and have a much solider foundation in place.  He writes:

The issue of attracting the lucrative international education purchaser was raised in an op-ed in the Toronto Star this past week. The writer pulled no punches, in the matter of “edutourism” (my word, not his), Ontario has a terrific opportunity to cash in. We must, however, understand not just that this is a business, but that it is a particularly nasty, cut-throat business.

Whether the people apt to be put in charge of any potential programs (or consolidation of existing programs) have anything going for them other than the [. . .] marketing and [. . .] accouting skills needed to wangle a position in college management is a matter of concern. Without proven private sector experience, the “business end” of the proposal might suffer, especially if the only end is the proposal is business.

Whatever the marketing plan and the tomfoolery that accompanies foreign currency exchange, senior management junkets to Mumbai, Beijing or where-you-will, at some point, more than [the potential profits] should be considered. I say this mostly because I find it unconscionable to [. . .] trade in the certification commodity market, but also because – even as a business plan – short-term gain will inevitably be followed by long-term pain if the transactions are unsuccessful, and that means [that our system would be responsible for] providing international “customers” with value for their money.

Here, then, are three simple questions:

First, there is the question of cultural sensitivity. Do we have the people in place to make Ontario a welcoming place for international students?

Second, do we have academic programs in place to make the authentic educational experience worth their time and expense?

Third, will we be altering our institutions in a way that is detrimental to our existing students, if only through benign neglect?

I, for one, would be thrilled to see a robust international student program; but, I seriously doubt if our current management is capable of making the best of it. So far, all I have witnessed are a series of economic chatter about profit-seeking (sometimes couched in the lurid language of “entrepreneurship”). That, to me, is a betrayal of whatever is left of the ennobling purpose which postsecondary education is alleged to be about. It is also a lousy way to start up a solid commercial organization. [. . .]

So … if we’re serious about this as something more than a mercenary global rip-off:

Let’s first think of something worth doing (and not just as a scam to fill in the cracks in our budgets);

Let’s then think of the best way to do it (and not just rely on the “best practices” of the morally bankrupt);

Let’s then plan carefully and proceed.

This need not take a great deal of time. The experise is available in large measure among our own teaching faculty, though less likely in our administrative offices or in the bevy of “consultants” that can almost be guaranteed to get it wrong.

As I’ve said, the Ontario educational system may well benefit from a higher number of international students.  And attracting a global recognition and reputation could be a worthy basis for a renewed vision for and renewed funding of Ontario’s postsecondary system.  But I don’t see it working as a satisfactory replacement for that vision and funding.

Remember that McGuinty hasn’t proposed the influx of international students as a means of (or reason for) improving the educational system — he proposed it as a means of expanding the system and the provincial expectations thereof, while leaving the per-student funding as the lowest in the country.

And if the op-ed is correct, then the changes needed to increase our share in the global market could be surprisingly expensive, since they would involve a fundamental restructuring of the postsecondary system (with some thorny consequent problems that will be discussed in an upcoming post).

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