District competing for international students

Industry brings in $6 million a year to help pay educational bills

The job of attracting international students to the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows school district is getting tougher as North American school boards compete for this lucrative funding source.

The potential is immense. International students brought more than $7.7 billion to Canada in 2010, according to a study by the Canadian Bureau for International Education. This includes students’ tuition, accommodation and discretionary spending. That value is greater than the country’s coniferous lumber exports, or its revenue from coals. It generated more than $445 million in government revenue, and it created 81,000 jobs.

The global demand for international education in Canada is growing, and it is the seventh most popular host country in the world. The nations that send the most students abroad for education are China, India, Korea, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. More than half of Canada’s international students come from these countries.

The Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows school district works hard to be one of those places which these students consider.

When the board’s international education manager, Michael Polan, took his position some 20 years ago, there were only five school districts in the province actively promoting themselves as destinations for students studying abroad.

“Now every single school board is doing this,” he said.

When he started, there were 71 international students in the district, and the best year was 650.

American schools are working harder to attract international students. During the George W. Bush presidency, with a high premium placed on homeland security, foreign students found it difficult to get into the U.S.  But that has changed. There are now 780,000 foreign students attending in the U.S., including 250,000 from China.

By comparison, Canada has about 265,000 international students – more than half of them are studying at the post secondary level.

The U.S. enjoys better “brand recognition” than Canada when it comes to attracting these customers. Asian students can name about 10 U.S. cities, whereas they can only recall about two from Canada.

“And, unfortunately, Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows are not one of them,” said Polan.

What’s more, the Canadian government has recently adopted more stringent requirements for foreign students, putting more red tape before a home stay here. For example, Polan is no longer allowed to assist foreign students with their Visa applications.

“Now I’m a criminal if I help them out.”

Still, he said, the local district, with 564 international students this year, compares favourably to others in B.C.

Polan’s department estimates that international students and their visiting families contributed approximately $13.3 million to the local economy last year. That includes $6 million in student fees, $4 million in home stay fees ($800 per month), $900,000 for parent visits, $800,000 in spending money, $300,000 for field trip activities and almost $400,000 for medical costs.

“The report does not rely on a multiplier effect, but on the approximate amount of money that foreign students collectively bring into Canada to pay for their education and support themselves while they study here for one academic year,” noted the report’s summary.

Polan said the strong points of the local experience are the teachers, and the positive environment in the home stays.

“And those are the most important factors for students staying here,” he said.

If they enjoy their stays in Canada, so too do host families like having them, as attested to by the tearful partings of students and their host families, noted Polan.

Foreign students have little solid data on which to base their decision where to attend school abroad. He said overseas families will use the much-maligned Fraser Institute ranking of schools to decide where to attend.

Polan’s team helps to give them a preview of the community through summer programs. Each year between 1,200 and 1,500 students are taken canoeing on Alouette Lake, zip-lining at Wildplay, given English programs, and soon about 30 per cent of them are signing up for a stay in the district.

The academies and programs offered here attract students, such as  the International Baccalaureate program at Garibaldi secondary, self-directed learning model at Thomas Haney secondary, hockey academy at Pitt Meadows secondary.

“Please know, you enrich our school system by being here,” school board chairman Mike Murray told the students.


By number

International students in the district:

• China, 186;

• South Korea, 165;

• Mexico, 71;

• Germany, 62;

• Japan, 50;

• others, 30.


By grade:

• Grade 12 – 100;

• Grade 11 – 147;

• Grade 10 – 128;

• Grade 9 – 29;

• Grade 8 – 30;

• Grade 7 – 33;

• Grade 6 – 42;

• Grade 5 – 35;

• Grades 1 to 4 – 10.