Robert Sun, a 14-year-old Taiwanese student starting Grade 9 in Toronto today, is a dream customer.
The product? A Canadian public-school education.
The price? A handsome $11,500 a year in tuition fees.
Young Robert is part of a thriving new market for Canadian school boards, which are following the lead of universities that have long vied for high-paying foreign students.
Last year the federal government issued one-year study permits to 14,321 students, ranging from kindergarten to Grade 12, who went to school in Canadian classrooms. The betting is that this year the numbers will be even higher.
And those are just the foreign students who stay for more than six months; students who stay for less time don’t need a permit.
“This is a billion-dollar business,” said Smita Sengupta, manager of international student services and admissions with the Toronto District School Board.
Her board has 800 fee-paying international students this year, up 30 per cent from two years ago.
The Vancouver school district has more than 900 foreign students spread across 18 high schools and 25 elementary schools, including a few five-year-olds in kindergarten, said Barbara Onstad, manager of international education at the Vancouver school board.
And in the school district of Langley, B.C., 700 international students are spread throughout nine high schools, making up about 6 per cent to 7 per cent of each school’s population, according to figures from the Canadian Education Centre Network.
This business has spread to all provinces and many small towns. It features a cadre of international recruiting agents, who receive a fee for each pupil who ends up at a Canadian school, and an annual fair for those agents to share ideas on how to attract new customers.
“Marketing is very, very important. You’ve got to be there to get the kids,” said Dr. Sengupta.
At the heart of this business is the CECN, a Vancouver-based marketing body set up to promote Canadian public-school education to families overseas. The network has 20 offices in foreign countries plus about 30 staff in Canada.
“People make their choices first on the country, not on the program or the cost or the reputation of a school,” said Gardiner Wilson, director of the centre’s public policy and research. He noted that Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Britain, France, Germany and the Netherlands all recruit foreign students to their schools.
Mr. Wilson said Canada’s main attraction is the excellent international reputation of its publicly funded education system. Canadian students do well in international tests — a key factor for foreign parents considering sending their children abroad — and the school system is well-financed compared with other industrialized countries.
Mr. Wilson said Canada’s main customers for public education come from South Korea, China, Japan, Mexico and Hong Kong. Koreans, he said, and prefer their children to develop a neutral North American accent rather than the posh tones of an educated Briton or the twang of a Texan. Canada’s schools provide that training.
For Robert Sun’s parents, buying a Canadian education for their boy serves several purposes. The first is to expose him to ideas beyond the scope of the Taiwanese education system.
“Right now it’s a global world. We would like to have our son have a global mind,” said his mother, Rebecca Tsang, 46. It’s also a great way for him to perfect his English, and with the Mandarin he already knows, he should be positioned well to find a good job, she said.
Another big draw for Ms. Tsang and her husband, Frank Sun, 55, who jointly own a trading company in Taipei, is that the Canadian public-school system teaches children to think deeply and creatively, rather than the tough-minded rote learning that takes place throughout East Asia.
“When you’re young, you should try different things and see what’s interesting for you,” Ms. Tsang said.
She has left her work in Taipei to live in Canada with Robert until he is ready to attend a Canadian university. They have rented a home in a Toronto suburb near York Mills Collegiate Institute, the high school they have chosen for Robert when he starts Grade 10 next year.
Like many parents who send their children to Canada for schooling, the Tsangs researched the country by province and then school district, before deciding on the north end of Toronto.
For Canada’s school boards, the revenue from foreign-student fees helps keep alive programs such as arts and music for domestic students — especially in Saskatchewan and Newfoundland where school populations are decreasing. “It’s definitely subsidizing what’s going on in public-school districts,” said the Vancouver board’s Ms. Onstad.
Foreign students pay up to $12,500 a year in tuition, depending on the province and grade in which they study. Most of the money goes straight to a board’s bottom line, although a small portion goes to hiring extra English-as-a-second-language teachers.
In the case of the Vancouver board’s 900 foreign students, that works out to more than $11-million, most of which goes straight to the central budget to be spent as the board sees fit.
“What’s also grown is awareness about what a nice source of revenue this can be,” said Ms. Onstad, noting that the practice has coincided with provincial cuts to education.
So far, the overseas trend seems to be a win-win situation. Canadian teachers, parents and students are fans because they say the teaching is richer and more vibrant with more bright, motivated foreign students in the classrooms.