Cape Breton University Is On A Roll

University education can be a wonderful source of export earnings and immigration attraction for Nova Scotia.

The financial viability of our universities is heavily dependent on maintaining and growing enrolment. That makes for a tough challenge in a province where the number of students completing high school each year is in relentless decline.

To succeed, the universities need to attract students from other parts of Canada, and increasingly from other countries. The current year’s results in international recruiting are remarkably diverse.

Dalhousie now has 3,947 international students, an increase of 11% over last year. This represents one fifth of Dal’s enrolment, a level that they would like to maintain. It has taken a number of years to build up the necessary support infrastructure for foreign students.

Nowhere is the enrolment challenge more daunting than at Cape Breton University (CBU). It has more than its share of demographic decline. In addition, a 2016 change in policy by the government of Saudi Arabia meant that their enrolment, which had peaked at 460, was about to disappear.

It was therefore both surprising and exciting to learn this week that CBU’s international contingent had more than doubled to 1,982 students. Without that increase the university’s enrolment would have decreased slightly. With it the enrolment has grown by 35%. Almost half of CBU’s students are from outside Canada.

Unlike Canadian students, the tuition cost for the extra 1,090 students covers the full cost of their education. No provincial subsidy is required. Each student will spend $35,000 on tuition, lodging, meals, and other locally produced goods and services. It is a welcome $38 million shot in the arm for the regional economy.

Management states that this was the fruition of continuing recruiting efforts, particularly those focused on India.

The dramatic growth presented considerable but welcome challenges. The university’s residences did not have enough room, so the community was asked to step up, and did so. At least 200 families offered to take in students.

The student union helped establish an ongoing process for international students to find lodgings. The university contributed to the cost of improving bus service—CBU’s campus being midway between Sydney and Glace Bay.

Classroom space was suddenly at a premium. More teaching staff was needed, particularly for engineering and technology.

A bonus is that many of these students will be interested in staying in Canada, hopefully in Nova Scotia. The federal government is providing $250,000 over two years to support local efforts encouraging post-graduation settlement of international students.

Whether the university experiences are successful and opportunities for immigration are realized will depend a lot on the receptiveness of the community. Cape Breton has a history of welcoming newcomers. This time it is mostly people of different races and faith traditions.

The cohort of students that arrived this year will study for two to four years. Another entry cohort of the same size next year would grow the student population by a further 1,000 and would overwhelm the university’s capacity. It will have to find a way to scale back new entrants without losing the momentum that has been established in their international markets.

If CBU succeeds at this balancing act, the international enrolments will provide a substantial continuing contribution to the region’s economy, and population.

Given Dal’s good performance and CBU’s amazing result, it is odd that the other universities collectively had a net reduction in international enrolments. They could really benefit from the extra revenue.

Nova Scotia’s other universities will differ from CBU in the programs offered, their recruiting strategies, and the proportion of international students they want and can support with the necessary services.

That said, the other schools should take a hard look at the CBU experience and see what lessons can be drawn from it that are useful in their context.

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