Ten years ago, U of T’s international student population was about 10 per cent of total enrolment, and non-citizens were not allowed to serve on Governing Council, the university’s most powerful administrative body. By 2015, the University of Toronto Act had been amended to allow non-citizens to serve on Governing Council, and by 2017 international students accounted for 22 per cent of U of T’s student body.

Today, money from international students makes up 30 per cent — $928.61 million — of the university’s revenue, above the 25 and 24 per cent that provincial grants and domestic tuition provide respectively.

Since 2007, the university’s operating budget has increased by 89 per cent, corresponding with the rapid rise in the international student population. As the university has rapidly expanded in the past decade, international students have become U of T’s only consistently growing source of revenue.

Operating grants versus tuition revenue

Operating grants are the main source of funding provided by the provincial government and are conditional upon institutions following through on government mandates.

Recent examples of these mandates include the Student Choice Initiative and campus free speech policy, under which institutions would face cuts to their operating grants for non-compliance.

Since 2006, provincial operating grants have stagnated, holding steady to inflation in the range of $700 million. However, since the domestic student population has only increased, per student funding by the province is in decline.

In U of T’s Long Range Budget Report, the university points to the Ontario government’s worries about a province-wide decline in the 18–20-year-old population.

The report goes on to say that by 2019–2020, provincial operating grants will only make up 25 per cent of U of T’s revenue — less than the 30 per cent that international students contribute.

China and U of T

Chinese international students made up about 65 per cent of the international undergraduate student population last year. In the shadow of the diplomatic tensions between Canada and China over the arrest of a senior executive from Huawei, credit rating agency Moody’s warned of the devastating financial impact on the university’s cash flow if Chinese students are pulled out of Ontario universities, highlighting their dependence on international students.

The concerns are not unfounded — in August, Saudi Arabia declared it would withdraw all of its international students from Canadian universities, of which there were about 300 at U of T at the time, because of a tweet made by Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland condemning the arrest of a Saudi women’s rights activist.

Lynette Ong, Director of the Munk Asian Institute China Initiatives and Associate Professor of Political Science, believes that the likelihood of China pulling its students out of Canada is fairly low.

Ong, in an email to The Varsity, writes that other major destinations for Chinese international students — like Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States — are all experiencing tense bilateral relations with the Chinese government, leaving few options for the country even if it were to pull students out of Canadian universities.

However, the recent Scarborough Campus Students’ Union election did see the mobilization of Chinese international students in a petition to remove the President-elect Chemi Lhamo for her support of the Tibetan independence movement. The Chinese embassy denied allegations of involvement, but its statement iterated the embassy’s support for the “patriotic actions of Chinese students.”

International student tuition and tuition cuts

Meanwhile, international tuition has continued to rise for Canadian postsecondary institutions.

When adjusted for inflation, the base domestic Arts & Science tuition at U of T has increased by about $1,000 over 11 years; international students have seen their tuition rise by more than $25,000 — a 127.5 per cent increase — during that time.

In an interview with BBC and then The Varsity shortly after, U of T President Meric Gertler justified the university’s need to raise international tuition in order to match peer institutions, fund initiatives, and offer offices specifically aimed toward international students.

As a consequence of rising tuition costs, Gertler also said that the university saw a rise in the quantity and quality of international applicants to the university, another driver of international enrolment.

The main guideline for domestic fees is the Strategic Mandate Agreement, a three-year mandate signed by both the Ontario government and the university in 2017 that outlines the objectives and enrolment guidelines for the university.

Part of these guidelines includes limiting the amount of domestic students that can be enrolled. However, international student enrolment is mainly decided by individual programs, guided by a five-year international enrolment plan made by Governing Council.

While the university and the province have agreed to decrease domestic enrolment at UTSG by 1,700 spots and maintain current enrolment levels at both UTM and UTSC, international enrolment over the next five years is projected to steadily increase, with an average six per cent increase in international tuition per year.

In the wake of the provincial government’s directive to cut domestic tuition by 10 per cent next year, U of T said that international students will not see a tuition hike, but it may accelerate plans to increase international enrolment.

UTM Vice-President and Principal Ulrich Krull suggested this as part of a mix of solutions to accommodate for the domestic tuition cut.

The 10 per cent cut to domestic tuition followed by a tuition freeze will affect each program differently — if a program has a higher proportion of domestic students, it will lose a larger source of revenue and face steeper cuts.

The Varsity’s analysis of 2017 enrolment numbers estimates that second-entry programs will be the most heavily affected due to the high number of domestic students taken in.

The Arts & Science programs at all three campuses will see a lower percentage of their students receiving the cut; however, just by sheer size, they will face the brunt of the tuition cut — for UTSG, the Faculty of Arts & Science will lose an estimated $20 million off of its $495 million net expense budget for next year.

In an earlier interview with The Varsity, U of T Vice-President & Provost Cheryl Regehr said that the university hopes to “find solutions that minimally impact students, staff and faculty, and programs.”