In January, a sudden crush of 75 international students arrived in Prince George from overseas, only to find that the classroom seats in their programs at the College of New Caledonia had been filled.
The arrival of the students right before the start of classes was unexpected, confounding college administrators.
"They just showed up," said CNC president Henry Reiser.
The students were faced with an unenviable bind; their student visas required them to enrol full-time in courses - and pay the considerable tuition - in order to remain in the country. With the courses in their selected programs completely full, most students were left with the choice of paying to take courses unrelated to their programs or of returning home.
International students pay tuition rates more than four-and-a-half times those of domestic students for arts-related programs at CNC, according to the Ministry of Advanced Education, Skills & Training.
"We could have just said 'there's no room at the inn, go back home,'" Reiser said. "We chose not to do that. They all had opportunities to take a full course load, maybe not in the courses that they wanted to register in, but at least we didn't turn them around and say 'go back home.'"
The story underscores the dark side of the international student enrolment bonanza that colleges and universities like CNC have been experiencing in recent years. Some students and staff have begun to argue that the services - and even the number of classroom seats - are not keeping up with the demand from students arriving from countries like China, India, Nigeria and Brazil.
British Columbia has seen the number of its international student population skyrocket from 90,037 in 2010 to more than 136,000 in 2017; the number has almost certainly increased since then. CNC has seen its international student population more than double from 390 in 2014 to 925 in 2017.
UNBC saw a drop in international student enrolment in this period, from 343 in 2014 to 286 in 2017, but has so far seen a four per cent rise in enrolment this year.
A report released last week by the B.C. Federation of Students, a provincial student organization whose membership includes students at CNC, argues that the tuition dollars of international students has been propping up the budgets of colleges and universities, many of which have seen stagnating levels of per-student government funding over the last two decades. But while many such institutions have been reaping a windfall in revenue from international students, the supports needed for these students have not kept up.
"International students are having to pay all of this money, but they're not getting the services or support that they need to help them be able to have a successful academic career in British Columbia," said Simka Marshall, chairperson of the BCFS.
The BCFS report calls for government regulation of international student fee increases, similar to the system in place for domestic students. While the provincial government has limited domestic student fee increases to two per cent yearly since 2005, universities and colleges face no similar limit on the level at which they can increase international tuition. Some colleges, such as the University of Victoria and UBC, have recently seen tuition fees for international students rise as high as 20 per cent in a single year.
In Prince George, both UNBC and CNC have avoided large-scale increases in international student tuition in recent years. Since 2005, UNBC has maintained the rate of increase of international student tuition fees at the same level as domestic, while CNC's international student tuition remained at the same price between 2011/2012 and 2015/2016 before increasing by four per cent in 2016/2017.
Both Reiser and UNBC president Daniel Weeks said the higher tuition was necessary because post-secondary institutions do not receive government funding for international students. In the case of UNBC, the university charges a tuition rate of three and a half times that of domestic students.
"While the typical undergraduate student will pay approximately $5,300 tuition for a full course load, the provincial government provides an additional $7,000 to $15,000 (program dependent) per student to fund costs of providing post-secondary education to those students," Weeks said.
"This is why UNBC charges a multiplier of approximately 3.5 times the domestic tuition rate - to cover the revenue that the provincial government does not provide for international students, and to help UNBC provide an outstanding education opportunity for all students."
Harman Dandiwal, who arrived in Prince George initially as an international student at CNC, now works as an organizer at the College of New Caledonia Students' Union. The students who arrived in January contacted him and some have expressed frustration about the lack of seats in their chosen field of study.
"I wish we could grant as many visas as there are seats, but that's not the case. There's more visas being issued as compared to the number of seats that CNC has," Dandiwal said.
Reiser said the students initially received their acceptance letter for their program area from CNC. This letter is what allows students to apply for their visa from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. Reiser said colleges like CNC often have little control over the process of the visa application and delays can cause difficulties in planning when it comes to course registration. New overseas students have been slow to register early for their courses online.
As a result, keeping up with the demand of ever-increasing international enrolment has been a challenge.
"We're not the only institution that has seen this incredible demand. This is a phenomena across the province and across the country," Reiser said.
Dandiwal is less focused than his counterparts at the BCFS over the high cost of tuition for international students. He said CNC offers a payment plan to allow students to pay their tuition in instalments, rather than the normal lump sum.
But he said other issues, such as housing and part-time work opportunities, are becoming increasingly dire for students.
"I think the bigger issue is, when a student comes to CNC, are they getting the course that they applied for? Are they going to get housing right away? Are they able to find decent part-time employment opportunities?" he said.
Marshall said other college campuses, faced with increasing international enrolment, are also seeing similar housing crunches in areas close to campus. She described hearing stories from students at the Nelson campus of Selkirk College from a recent trip.
"There were international students there that told me that they're having to share like a two-bedroom apartment with eight people because of the lack of housing availability in Nelson," Marshall said.
Reiser said CNC has made significant investments in services offered to international and domestic students.
"We've increased the number of advisors that we had, we've increased the number of staff that we have at the registrars office, admissions clerks. We've increased even more in this year's budget," Reiser said.
"We are addressing our capacity. Does that mean enrolment caps? Probably."
The college has an international education centre, which provides an array of services to students such as organizing cultural and social events for international students and assisting with applications for post-graduate work permits.
But Dandiwal said the need for services to support international students extends beyond simply making their studies easier. He pointed to the attempts by the federal government to woo international students to become immigrants after graduating.
Last July, Federal Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen described international students as "the cream of the crop in terms of future Canadians," due to their language proficiency and Canadian education. Prince George has seen an increasing number of students remaining in the region after graduating.
"In the end, these are the folks who are going to be permanent residents tomorrow and living here. I think there should be some sort of support services in place to integrate (them) in society," Dandiwal said.