When I walked onto McGill campus on my first day, the number of international students took me aback. Everywhere I went, I heard Spanish, German, Farsi and different Asian and Arabic dialects.
On the surface, the University seems to admit a large number of students from all over the world, but according to Principal Heather Munroe-Blum, McGill – and Quebec – could still use more. Munroe-Blum, when addressing the situation at a conference held on October 19, said that Quebec needs more international students, and that the government should be doing everything in their power to increase the number of students in the province from abroad. According to a McGill Tribune article published on October 23, Munroe-Blum stated: “We face an international race for talent and Quebecers are not winning. We can only win with incentives for universities to attract, support, and retain top talent with quality and accessibility.” Essentially, Munroe-Blum is arguing that international students pump life into the Canadian economy, and that in a free market global economy, attracting the best talent from around the world is necessary to keep a competitive edge. In an online article for McGill Newsroom, Munroe-Blum mentioned: “There are numerous benefits to recruiting international students…not the least of which is their impact on our economy. For example, international students in Canada have an economic impact of eight billion dollars annually. And according to the Conférence régionale des élus, one third of international students who study in Quebec choose to stay here after their studies.”
While Munroe-Blum is quick to emphasize the positive economic and “cultural” impact of international students, she also emphasizes that McGill’s recruitment of international students has nothing to do with financial gain from their higher tuition. Speaking at an event hosted by the Montreal Council for Foreign Relations last month, Munroe-Blum said: “under the Quebec funding system, most of the tuition paid by students from outside Quebec returns to the government…Because of this, each year, McGill gives back around $55 million of its students’ fees.”
Even though McGill wants more international students, there are a few reasons why it might not make sense for them. For Quebecers – and Quebec citizens living abroad – choosing McGill seems to be a no-brainer as the tuition for Quebec residents tallies up to around $2,000 yearly. For non-Quebec Canadians, tuition is still relatively cheap, averaging approximately $7,000 a year. For international students, though, tuition ranges from $17,000 to $25,000 a year. This fee adds up to about the same – or sometimes more – expensive than what an international student would usually pay for university in their respective home countries, with the obvious exception of American private institutions. This is a clear financial barrier. While Munroe-Blum has reiterated on multiple occasions that there is no correlation between high tuition fees and university attendance, the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), among others, disagrees. The CFS has made it clear that “high differential fees are an unfair burden and a barrier to post-secondary education for international students. Ultimately, such fees could threaten Canada’s ability to attract and retain foreign scholars.” Even if Quebec wants to attract international students to its universities, the tuition fees are no encouragement.
Furthermore, the Parti Québécois’ immigration policy states that it is easier for people who come from French-speaking backgrounds and who have some knowledge of Quebec to attain citizenship. This may create obstacles for immigrants who want to study at one of Montreal’s English-speaking universities, and who have no background of French. According to Jean-François Lisée, a PQ MNA quoted in a Global Montreal article, “The Parti Québécois [will] change immigration criteria to favour people who already use French as their main language and draw up a plan to keep young families on the island of Montreal.”
There are many other drawbacks for international students. As Principal Munroe-Blum has said, only one-third of international students who attend Quebec universities end up staying in Quebec. One explanation is that non-Canadians may have a hard time finding jobs locally, as Quebecois companies allegedly favour Quebecois residents over immigrants or international job applicants. On the other hand, the graduates who stay here or don’t go back to their home countries are depriving their countries of the fresh human capital they need to innovate in a practice known as ‘brain drain.’
Additionally, students coming from abroad wouldn’t necessarily have the same educational standards as local students attending university, which might produce an inequality among students of the same faculty or major. In a brief interview with close friend of mine (an Engineering student) on whether he thought adjusting to the university’s educational standards was hard, he somewhat disagreed: “It is surprising. Coming from an educational system that does not provide an interim education between high school and university (such as CEGEP), you would think people like me would have a hard time with their studies here,” he said. “For me and my highschool friends though,” he continued, “just as an example, we take Math as a whole, and Calculus within the Math syllabus. People here take Calculus as a class in itself, and so we may not acquire knowledge of other mathematical concepts before attending university.”
It is absolutely possible for international students like myself to lead successful academic careers at McGill. But both McGill and the province of Quebec need to do more to foster an accepting social, political, and cultural environment for international students if Heather Munroe-Blum’s ambitious plans are to be successful.