Matching Rapid Growth with Adequate Supports: How Colleges and Government Can Enhance International Student Experiences in Ontario

Matching Rapid Growth with Adequate Supports: How Colleges and Government Can Enhance International Student Experiences in Ontario was written by Julia Colyar, Jackie Pichette & Janice Deakin, Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

Colleges, their private partners and all levels of government must share in the responsibility for international students’ experiences and well-being

The dramatic growth in international student enrolments at Ontario colleges has been accompanied by concerns about the financial, academic, physical and mental well-being of these students. A new report by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) finds that international students require a range of supports over and above those originally designed to meet the needs of domestic students. Supports related to housing and transportation, health and well-being, and belonging and safety are needed most urgently. Matching Rapid Growth with Adequate Supports: How Colleges and Government Can Enhance International Student Experiences in Ontario finds that as international enrolments continue to climb, there is an increasingly urgent need for colleges and governments alike to take responsibility for the well-being of international students.

As Ontario continues to recruit record numbers of students from outside Canada, it is important to understand how colleges are managing these challenges. To find out more, HEQCO interviewed representatives from 16 public colleges, including institutional leaders, program administrators and student support professionals. Interviewees talked about the scope of activities underway; opportunities to enhance available resources; and the circumstances making these supports necessary.

Interviewees shared that international students often struggle to understand academic expectations. Many struggle to balance academics with work to afford the high costs of tuition and housing. Students’ experiences of racism on campuses and in communities can limit their integration and employment prospects. These challenges can exacerbate physical and mental health issues.

In the current environment, international enrolment is primarily driven by the financial realities faced by postsecondary institutions in Ontario which are the result of decreases in government support. The increased focus on enrolling international students shapes program development, overseas recruitment practices, student support needs, institutional staffing and programming requirements and the stressors on local communities (particularly communities in the GTA), including health-care options and housing markets. These challenges will continue to be carried by local communities as international students graduate and seek opportunities to live and work in Ontario.

The report offers the following recommendations to colleges and multiple levels of government to improve the international student experience in Ontario.

Provincial Government

  • Develop a provincial strategy to guide colleges’ internationalization activities. Ensure alignment between labour market gaps and high-intake programs, and emphasize the variety of credentials needed to meet labour market priorities.
  • Revisit MCU’s “Public College-Private Partnerships: Minister’s Binding Policy Directive” (2019) to clarify college accountabilities related to enrolment management, program quality, advertising and student support requirements; monitor and enforce these directives.
  • Examine recruitment practices and incentive structures used to attract international students. Accurate information and ethical practice can help ensure student success.

Federal Government

  • Work with the Ontario government to develop a comprehensive international education strategy. Review the goals and outcomes of the current program to ensure it is meeting federally identified priority programs, provides a PSE pathway for immigrants to become highly skilled workers, and is taken up across the full range of credential and programs offered by PSE institutions.
  • Examine international student work permits (and the 20-hour pilot project in place) to evaluate student experiences, outcomes, completion rates and time-to-completion.
  • Evaluate the permits required for co-op opportunities to reduce barriers to access.

Ontario Colleges

  • Review the academic requirements for international students’ admission — including language exam scores and assessment of prior learnings — and consider language programs for accepted students who lack adequate skills. Adhering to admission standards can help reduce pressure on students and staff.
  • Collect and publish international student satisfaction data related to available supports and resources to understand where there are persistent gaps and challenges; coordinate approaches with other colleges for comparability.
  • Leverage local community contexts for individual campuses (location, programming and populations); work closely with municipal governments to address some of the challenges facing students and institutions, including housing, health and well-being, inclusion and local employment.