In an urgent bid to plug a hole in its budget, Dalhousie University's medical school will sell 10 vacant first-year seats to students from Saudi Arabia for $75,000 annually.
Dalhousie's medical dean, Tom Marrie, says a reduction in provincial grants last year left the program underfunded, and that generating money from empty spaces is crucial to balancing the books.
The scheme is a targeted, stopgap solution, and may not be repeated. But most Canadian universities, including Dalhousie, are trumpeting Canadian education and looking to increase their foreign student enrolment as global competition for top talent – including those with deep pockets – heats up.
Dr. Marrie saw an opportunity recently when Dalhousie established a satellite medical school in New Brunswick, allowing students from that province to study remotely instead of in Nova Scotia, thus freeing up seats on the main campus.
The 63 places the provincial government funds for Nova Scotia students are full, so Dr. Marrie looked abroad. He decided recruiting in the UnitedStates would take too long, but Dalhousie has a history of training Saudi resident doctors, making it a natural partner.
The Saudi students will pay considerably more than their domestic counterparts, whose tuition and government funding amounts to less than $40,000, but Dr. Marrie said "that's not unreasonable" when compared with other international fees. The 10 students are expected to return to Saudi Arabia for their residencies.
"We've got to find a way to run the place. This is one of those ways," he said. "We just need this money to function."
Universities' international enrollment has steadily risen from 25,000 students in 1995 to 90,000 in 2010, according to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC). Colleges Ontario says its members saw a 48-per-cent increase in international students from 2009 to 2010.
The appetite for more foreign students comes not only from the fact that they pay much higher fees than their domestic peers, but also eagerness to land strong students who diversify campuses, fuel innovative research and contribute billions of dollars each year to the general economy.
The focus remains on countries that send the most students abroad, such as China, South Korea, the United States and India, especially as a growing middle class in some developing countries yields more students hunting for degrees.
Of 160,000 Indian students studying at universities abroad in 2008, fewer than 4,000 came to Canada. But Gail Bowkett, the AUCC's assistant director of international relations, believes enrolment from India has risen in the last year, and a delegation of 15 university presidents that travelled together to India in November returned optimistic they had raised Canada's educational profile.
Some are also targeting smaller markets. There are 16 countries with more students in Canada than Britain, but the University of Toronto and Centennial College are among several schools hoping to recruit more British students. The British government's plan to allow tuition fees to rise above $14,000 next year, while cutting teaching funds, has sparked anger and raucous protests.
"There is a lot of discussion amongst my peers in terms of an interest there," said Sue Dorey-Power, Dalhousie's associate registrar and director of recruitment.
The University of British Columbia will not follow suit, however. Karen McKellin, director of the school's International Student Initiative, said trying to tap the British market at this moment has "all the charm of an ambulance-chasing exercise."
Instead, she thinks Canadian schools would be wise to focus on students from other countries who would have chosen to study in Britain but are now thinking twice. "The U.K. has a lot of students from India and China," she said.
Who studies here
Foreign students present in Canada on study permits as of Dec. 1, 2009
South Korea 25,871
United States 11,275