Back to top

Interview / Kumari Beck

Interview / Kumari Beck

Kumari Beck is an associate professor and co-director of the Centre for Research on International Education in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University and president of the SFU Faculty Association. Her research interests span international education, internationalization of higher education, internationalization of curriculum, equity studies in education, globalization and higher education, postcolonial theory, and the ethics of care.

What do you think of the international student visa cap?​

I welcome any measure that limits the harm done to international students, upholds quality of education, and holds institutions that exploit students to account. The situation is dire for international undergraduate students who arrive in Canada expecting to study at reputable institutions, and find themselves at makeshift, unregulated private schools of questionable academic standing, having to fight for scarce accommodations. The visa cap is supposed to target “bad actors,” and is a much needed first step to stop unethical and exploitative practices.

But this is just one aspect of a complex problem. Since the early 2000s, the decline of public funding led postsecondary institutions to become more entrepreneurial and engage in the competition to grow revenue from international students. Some even entered partnerships with private, for-profit companies that create pathway programs to funnel international students from preparatory programs into academic programs at universities and colleges.

All this focus on marketing Canadian education has seen a sharp rise in numbers — we saw 63% growth over the previous 5 years, leading to just over a million international students at the end of last year! Our colleges and universities have become overly reliant on international student tuition and so these visa caps, although addressing a fundamental problem, have also left institutions financially vulnerable.

Why is the federal government intervening now?

The problem is not new — scholars and the media have been reporting on it. There is a housing crisis in the country and public anger has been building against international students and new immigrants who get the blame. The media played a role in creating this moral panic. Although international students are hardly the cause of the housing problem, and are in fact themselves victims of it, the timing of the federal announcement is related to public pressure.

What is not well known is that the federal government is complicit in this rampant increase in international student numbers without consideration of the capacity of institutions and communities to support them. Their first international education strategy, in 2014, framed international education as a tradable commodity, marketed under an EduCanada brand. Their second strategy promised “pathways to permanent residency,” a promise offered indiscriminately to entice students to select Canada as a study destination.

Another aspect of this problem is that in the absence of a federal education portfolio, international education found itself in the Ministry of Trade, and is now within Global Affairs Canada, in partnership with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada and Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada.

It is not hard to see how international education has become a business opportunity rather than an initiative grounded in educational goals. Much has been written about and critiqued by Canadian scholars in the field including a recent edited collection, International Education as Public Policy in Canada.

How are academic staff adjusting to increasing numbers of international students?

Academic staff are frustrated that administrations bring international students to campuses in record numbers but have limited or inadequate support systems in place for them, resulting in academic staff filling the gap. They accommodate students whose first language is not English. They help students become fluent in the language of their academic discipline, so they can eventually engage in the level of discourse expected in classrooms. They adapt their teaching methods in creative and innovative ways to acculturate students from diverse educational environments to Canadian classrooms. Academic staff provide international students added supports and pastoral care. We cannot overstate the obvious workload implications.

What can academic staff associations do?

Academic staff associations can hold administrations accountable for the lack of support for international students and the resulting invisible labour for academic staff. Collegial governance is important in, for example, the decisionmaking around international student numbers and services, and in demanding academic oversight in areas outsourced to private, for-profit companies.

Academic staff associations can ask tough questions about how universities set international student fees, how they use the revenue generated, and whether they even partially apply those funds to student support services. They need to ensure that educational values and principles in practices of internationalization guide university administrations. They can form alliances with student associations to advocate for decent living conditions and effective support services for international students. Some institutions are setting up initiatives that address the needs of students from diverse backgrounds, but associations must ensure that these programs are not one-off initiatives, and that there are parallel supports for faculty.

This moment is opportune for all of us to re-examine our collective commitment to keeping educational values. This means challenging corporate models of internationalization that prioritize economic rather than academic goals and addressing the inequities faced by international students. Put quite simply, stop treating them like cash cows, and focus on being good hosts in providing care and a high-quality educational experience.


April 2024

Book review / Seeking a Research-Ethics Covenant in the Social Sciences

Will C. van den Hoonaard University of Alberta Press, 2023; 152 pp; By Udo Krautwurst​ We all... Read more
April 2024

Academic staff associations and collegial governance

By Larry Savage and Stephanie Ross The first wave of faculty unionization in Canadian... Read more
April 2024

News / Strike by Memorial University lecturers averted

The Lecturers’ Union of Memorial University of Newfoundland (LUMUN) reached a tentative... Read more