By Brenda Austin-Smith
This past September the Association of Nova Scotia University Teachers (ANSUT) organized a conference focused on the experience of international students in that province. The “One World” conference featured a number of speakers, but student experiences were at the heart of the event. The audience heard from student leaders like Beatrice Chiang, President of the Dalhousie International Students Association, and Mary Asekome, National Deputy Chair of the Canadian Federation of Students, among others. Opening remarks from Dr. Summerby-Murray, President of St. Mary’s University in Halifax, set a positive tone for the gathering. Dr. Summerby-Murray shared with attendees that he himself came to Canada as an international student, and he stressed to us all that international students certainly do not think of themselves as commodities, even though the terms in which their presence in our colleges and universities is discussed is often economic.
Despite that optimistic beginning, evidence offered by the remaining presenters was that international students are indeed often regarded primarily in terms of profit. The high tuition fees charged to these students is the most obvious example of that attitude. Chronic under-funding of our sector has meant that institutions have a strong incentive to recruit international students as a way to make up for core budget shortfalls. Though a quality post-secondary educational experience is something Canada should provide, and does provide, for people from all over the world, too often the presence of students from other places goes hand in hand with inadequate services for those same students. From lack of housing and transportation, especially in smaller communities, to food insecurity and insufficient access to medical care, international students are often poorly-served by the provinces and institutions that have recruited them. The provincial government of Manitoba, for example, cut universal health care coverage for international students last year.
As part of the ANSUT Conference, I presented on the experience of my own institution, the University of Manitoba, which signed a contract in 2007 with Navitas, a private, for-profit Australian corporation, to provide international students with instruction in pre-university and first-year courses. Details of the contract were not shared with the Senate at the time, and it took a FIPPA application, as well as a subsequent appeal to the provincial ombudsman, to have a redacted version of the contract released for public discussion. Despite strong opposition to the principle of contracting out public education services to a for-profit business, as well as to the process followed in awarding this contract, my university has renewed its relationship with Navitas. The extraction model of education followed by these for-profit entities strikes me as redolent of colonialism, extracting value from the desire of international students for quality education, and the dedication of those committed to teaching them.
International students are not the only ones whose circumstances are negatively affected by a profit-seeking approach to post-secondary education. Private operators like Navitas, for example, make money from the difference between the tuition paid by the students they recruit, and the wages they pay to the instructors who teach those students. Instead of hiring full-time instructors in its “pathway programs,” corporations like Navitas tend to hire contract academic staff and provide no benefits or rights associated with a collective agreement. Instructors teaching for companies like INTO, Study Group, or Navitas on a course by course basis join the surging ranks of precarious labour, which in turn threatens their academic freedom. Instructors who must please their private employers in order to be re-hired each term, are less likely to criticize the terms and conditions of their work, much less their employer’s business practices. Without the job security protections offered by a collective agreement, these academic colleagues do not have the professional autonomy even to teach their classes the way that other academics with such collective rights do.
CAUT policy maintains that academic freedom crucially includes both the right to intramural and extramural speech on the part of those teaching at post-secondary institutions. The absence of these intertwined rights for those who work for these corporations means that our colleagues do not have all of the tools they need to do their work. Their lack of rights undermines the integrity of the academic job, which affects us all.