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St. Lawrence’s reliance on private career colleges, international students for revenue is “risky”: Auditor-General

Last Updated on December 6, 2021 by YGK News Staff

On Wednesday, Ontario’s Auditor General revealed the extent to which Ontario’s colleges are reliant on international students for revenue. Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk says that this puts colleges in a precarious financial position should the students decide to go elsewhere or are suddenly no longer able to enter the country.

In the report, she found that international students’ enrollment has surged in recent years. In 2019, International students generated about 1.7 billion in 2020. Lysyk found that the majority of international students come from India, making up 62% of the total international students in the province.

This comes at a time where domestic student enrollment has declined by 15% while international enrolment grew by 342% since 2012.

In 2016, International student tuition accounted for 32.4% of total tuition revenue for St. Lawrence College. By 2021, International student tuition accounted for 67.6% of the colleges’ total tuition revenue.

The Auditor-General pointed to St. Lawrence College as one of five colleges in Ontario with the international student population from India making up over 90% of international students on campus. The Auditor-General says that this can be “risky” if suddenly the country were to stop sending students to Canada.

The Auditor-General says that the change is mainly due to changing demographics in Ontario. “The decrease in domestic students has mainly been due to a change in the demographics of Ontario’s population, and high school graduates pursuing university over college education,” Lysyk wrote in the report.

“We found that the Ministry has not developed a strategic plan for the sector to help mitigate the risk of a sudden decline in international students and the impact it could have on the college sector, students and government,” the report says.

In response, the Ministry says it “will review these recommendations as part of its considerations in the development of an international post-secondary education strategy.”

Colleges too reliant on Private Career Colleges 

Ontario colleges have increasingly partnered with private career colleges to provide public college programs. The program, which has existed since 2005, allows public colleges to reach international students who want to remain in larger cities, such as Toronto and Vancouver. Public colleges will retain a portion of international tuition from the private colleges that are facilitating course instruction.  

In practice, the program provides benefits for all stakeholders. However, Ontario’s auditor general says that some colleges are now over-reliant on these partnerships. 

This is because while private career colleges cannot provide work-study permits for international students, this could change. “If this immigration policy were changed to allow graduates of private career colleges to obtain these permits, there would be little reason for them to maintain their partnerships with public colleges,” wrote Lysyk. 

For instance, the auditor general of Ontario found that if St. Lawrence College were to suddenly lose their partnerships with private career colleges, the college would face a 6.51 million dollar deficit next year. St. Lawrence College currently has two private college partners: Alpha College located in Scarborough and Canadian College, located in Vancouver.

Compliance issues with Private Career Colleges

In 2019, the Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities introduced new compliance measures for colleges that have entered into partnerships with private career colleges. The new directive says that private career college enrollment can’t exceed twice the number of international students that are present on their home campus. 

If the colleges exceed this limit, they must report to the Ministry as to how they will lower the number of international students on campus. 

St. Lawrence College was listed as one of five colleges that had more international students at private career colleges than what they were allowed. The college was required to submit a plan to reduce the student ratio but by August 2021, no report had been submitted. 

The Auditor-General noted that St. Lawrence’s partnership with Vancouver-based Canadian College doesn’t align with the principles of its Partnership Directive, which is “to protect and enhance Ontario’s reputation in post-secondary education and as a place to live and work.” She also called the partnership between St. Lawrence and Canadian College “complicating.”

For instance, Canadian College cannot promote that they are a partner college with St. Lawrence College in Vancouver, given that St. Lawrence is not a certified college in British Columbia. However, St. Lawrence is able to promote the same arrangement in Ontario. The Ministry of Education and Skills Training in British Columbia and Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada are both calling for the partnership to be suspended until the Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities decides on how to move forward.

Provincial funding doesn’t match needs

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, $62.4 million in funding was given to help colleges manage the decline of revenue and increased costs caused by the pandemic between July 1st, 2020, and June 30th, 2021. The factors considered included an expected decline in revenue, ancillary fees, and services.

However, the Auditor-General found that five colleges including St. Lawrence College didn’t use the money they were allocated. The five colleges deferred a total of $14.7 Million. Two of the colleges, Canadore College and Northern College actually increased their surplus despite the pandemic. The Auditor-General says that some of this funding could have been given to colleges that had a greater need.

The Auditor-General also noted that deferred maintenance funding needs to be better addressed, with the condition and state of repair needing to be considered. Among Ontario’s colleges, the deferred maintenance and renewal need for the 2020 to 2022 period amount to $1.1 Billion.

Selected colleges who responded to the report noted that the reliance on international students is not a new issue, but they are left with no choice due to chronic underfunding to Ontario’s colleges. They say that the 10% tuition increase has compounded these issues. They note the Auditor-general’s conclusion that Ontario has one of the least funded college systems in Canada, with just $10,000 per student.

Editor’s Note: Some statistics have been adjusted for accuracy.

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