This academic year, U of T’s incoming international students are paying $35,280 in annual tuition. That amount is set to increase by 50 per cent over the next five years, and the province is aiming to enroll 50 per cent more international students by 2015. Compared to the amount domestic students pay, U of T charges its international students just over two and half times more for the same education. 

An argument could be made that such a difference reflects the cost of providing additional services to international students, but we might as well face the blatant fact: our university is using international students as cash cows to counterbalance the shortage in government funding and domestic students’ unwillingness to pay more. The question then becomes: is it wrong to do that? I think the answer depends on the role our university is expected to play for international students.

Our university should always remain accessible to qualified domestic students. That is why OSAP exists. However, it is not so obvious why the same standard should apply to international students. After all, it’s each government’s own responsibility to educate its youth and it’s not as if foreign governments aren’t up to the task.

Take China as an example, home to almost 60 per cent of U of T’s international student body. 16.3 per cent of China’s total public expenditure is devoted to educational institutions and public subsidies for all levels of education. This figure is even higher than its equivalent in the US, which only dedicates 13.8 per cent. 

Given that foreign governments are focusing on public education, it seems that U of T’s role amounts to nothing more than that of a service provider for an alternative choice for tertiary education.

It is a very costly alternative. The domestic student tuition in 2012 amounted to $14,414 — the total cost of one year at U of T with provincial funding included. An 18-year-old Chinese high school graduate considering staying in China or coming to our university faces a choice between $833 (or ¥5,000) a year in tuition at home and  $14,414 in Toronto. 

That is a 16-fold difference. It may be somewhat justifiable by citing the value of the experience, or, presumably, by the wide disparity in quality of education between the two countries. However, when someone shuns a standard and heavily subsidized service in favour of one that is 16 times more expensive, the latter probably qualifies as a luxury good. 

It’s hard to argue for a drop in the price tag of a luxury good on fairness grounds: why does it matter whether a luxury good costs 16 times its standard version, or 32 times its standard version? As a provider of a nonessential and commercial service, U of T is certainly free to charge twice, or three times, the cost of provision. 

Given its role as a nonessential service provider, perhaps the more relevant question for U of T is whether or not international students are satisfied with what they’re receiving for their money.

With some of my friends, international students from China, it seems the answer is a resounding “yes.” The most important factor they care about is our university’s international ranking. As long as it stays at its current twentieth place on the QS World University Ranking, the prestige alone is worth the price of admission. Tuition is only a secondary concern, but even then, our university offers competitive prices. The twenty-third place University of Michigan charges CAD $47,480; the twenty-fifth place Australian National University, CAD $29,455; and the seventeenth place University of Edinburgh, CAD $27,423.

Alternatively, one might argue from the perspective that students in foreign countries are entitled not only to an affordable higher education in their home countries, but also to a presumably better one at an institution overseas. 

In that case, our university should take the same approach to international students that it does towards every other student: the provider of a basic public service. It’s not rocket science to see what our university ought to do under this alternative assumption. Regardless of their country of origin, all students should pay the same tuition after adjusting for differences in government funding. 

Perhaps this unpleasant debate about whether higher education in Canada should be affordable to foreign students doesn’t need to be had. Our university wouldn’t need to generate extra income if only the provincial government would just pay up. 

Indeed, if each of our university’s 48,380 full-time domestic student received the average per student funding in Canada — excluding Ontario — of $12,707 instead of the current $8,233, our university would have more than enough money to lower its 8,167 full-time international students’ tuition fees.  

Even if one believes that it’s not wrong for our university to use international students as cash cows, knowing that the money is ultimately covering up the provincial government’s lack of vision and political will still leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. 

It is simply ridiculous for our province to lag so far behind the rest of the country — Alberta’s government, for example, provides $15,631 in funding per student. This lack of funding unfortunately leaves U of T with the difficult task of finding money elsewhere.

Higher education in one’s own country is a basic government service. Higher education at a foreign institution is not. 

It seems to me that as long as local governments are spending adequately on higher education, students who choose to go abroad are choosing a luxury they should be prepared to pay a premium for. Perhaps the easiest way out of this dilemma is for the provincial government to simply pay its fair share. 

Li Pan is a third-year student at Trinity College studying financial economics and math.