International Student Investment and the Case of Vantage College

Tracy Wang

The University of British Columbia (UBC) recently began construction on Vantage College, the home for its unique Vantage One program. The 11 month-long program is designed for international students who are academically qualified, but fail to meet the university’s minimum English language requirements. Students at the College will have a customized curriculum with specialized language instruction and courses equivalent to those of a typical first-year student, but structured differently and with smaller class sizes. The program aims to better prepare students to transition into their second year of university, and to go on to complete a degree from UBC.

The construction of Vantage College is expected to cost the university over $127 million. This high price tag includes the construction of a mixed-use central hub, Orchard Commons, which will provide a dining hall, classrooms, study spaces, administrative offices, childcare facilities, and 1048 residence beds for students.

Vantage College and the Vantage One program have garnered both support and criticism. Supporters see the potential of this new business model to more effectively integrate international students into both the university environment and Canadian society as a whole. Critics, however, maintain that it “is one instance of where the funding priorities are wrong,” and that focus should instead be placed on domestic students. A closer look at the potential outcomes reveals both the advantages and disadvantages of the Vantage College model:

Financial Sense

Tuition for Vantage College comes at a hefty $30,000 price tag. UBC has estimated that students can expect to spend $51,700 in total over the program’s one-year duration, which includes the cost of mandatory housing in Orchard Commons.

Given high tuition rates, UBC could recover its initial $127 million investment within two to five years, even given the most conservative estimates. Angela Redish, the Associate Vice President of Enrolment, has maintained that the program would help to ease financial pressures currently faced by the university. The initial investment would be quickly recouped and any revenue gained from the program reinvested to improve the university as a whole.

However, tuition for the Vantage One program is 25 per cent higher than what an international student in an Arts or science program would typically pay at UBC. Such high tuition rates can create significant financial barriers for students who may be academically qualified, but cannot afford to pay. While financial aid is available, the message sent to international students here is that money will equal access. One UBC student has stated that the high tuition at Vantage College is a sign that

UBC is becoming more and more an elitist school […] the poor need not apply.”

Impact on Immigration

Immigration policy in Canada has undergone significant changes in recent years. In the past, international students were required to return to their home country before applying for permanent residence; but since 2008, the Canadian Experience Class (CEC) has allowed international graduates of Canadian universities with work experience to apply for permanent residency without leaving. The CEC stream welcomed 20,000 new permanent residents between 2008 and 2013.

Accepting more international students is an ideal way of recruiting bright and qualified immigrants. Dr. Harold Bauder of Ryerson University’s Centre for Immigration and Settlement has maintained that

In a way [foreign students] are the ideal immigrants […]. They are ready to enter the labour market and start paying taxes.

The Vantage College program could be particularly effective in encouraging CEC immigrants, as it is provides key English language training and is designed to help incorporate international students into the local culture and society, thereby increasing their likelihood of staying in Canada after graduation.

However, this may not reflect the reality of the situation. In 2011, over 98,000 international students entered Canada; in the same year, only 6,700 international students became permanent residents. While these figures do not indicate the retention rate of a single cohort, the rate of foreign students who stay in Canada is low. Research conducted at UBC has also indicated that international students with low English-proficiency do not integrate well with the rest of the student body. Despite its stated objectives, specifically in providing opportunities to learn and practice English, Vantage College is set to be a relatively insular program. The exclusively international residence may serve to further isolate its residents from the broader student body.

Trends in Post-Secondary Education

Canada has seen a remarkable increase in the number of study permits issued to international students in recent years, and has become a top study-abroad destination. In 1999, there were 97,336 international students in Canada; ten years later, this figure had more than doubled to 196,227.

There is already a high proportion of international students in Canada, and a program like Vantage One offers a means of better integrating these students into Canadian society. In doing so, the program could encourage more foreign students to recognize Canada as a global leader in education and promote the quality of Canadian post-secondary institutions abroad – and any subsequent influx of foreign students would bring an infusion of spending to the economy.

Yet the predominant criticism of Vantage College is that UBC’s $127 million investment is unfair to current students. The university is currently facing a housing shortage, with 5200 people on waiting lists and an imminent 20 per cent increase in fees on the horizon. Many argue that instead of creating a gateway program for international students, these funds could be directed to improving the experience of domestic students and landed immigrants whose tax dollars fund the university. Vantage College has also been designed to offer additional benefits that other students do not have access to — for example, Vantage One classes have less than 75 students, while traditional first-year classes at UBC have several hundred.

The University of British Columbia has already made a sizeable investment in this pilot program in hopes of better integrating international students, creating a more diverse student body, and capitalizing on a potential source of much-needed revenue. The success of Vantage College will likely depend on international interest and careful execution on the part of the university. Although its construction is not yet complete, the program’s first cohort began in September with 190 students. With the Orchard Commons residence slated to open in the summer of 2016, only time will tell if UBC’s unique program is a worthwhile investment – and if it is, if other Canadian universities will follow suit.

Tracy Wang is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance.  She holds a Bachelor of Arts and Science from McGill University, where she completed a major in Cell and Molecular Biology and a double minor in English Literature and Economics. Tracy is particularly interested in health policy, but looks to also explore economic and education policy further.