B.C. is peddling its Dogwood Diploma to foreign students in the name of entrepreneurialism.
The windows of West Vancouver Secondary School’s library overlook sun-dappled Burrard Inlet. A slogan on the wall reads, “Laughter Translates Into Any Language.” As if on cue, the students streaming the halls of this school in one of Vancouver’s toniest neighbourhoods laugh in many languages. It’s a mosaic of Germans, Mexicans, Chinese, Koreans, Brazilians and other nationalities.
When it comes to recruiting international students, West Vancouver School District sets the bar. Launched in 1982, its international student program is the oldest in the province and the district has an embarrassment of riches with which to lure wealthy foreigners: an affluent and relatively safe community, close proximity to mountains and sea, a diversity of excellent sporting facilities and extracurricular options, and some of the highest academic achievers in B.C.’s public school system.
These are the sorts of superlatives that appealed to Paulina Mueller when she spun the globe looking for the ideal spot to pursue her education. A native of Germany, the 17-year-old is precociously motivated, with her focus already fixed on med school and specializing in surgery. Academic prowess coupled with a mother willing to shell out whatever it takes to acquire the international education her daughter desires make Mueller a model client for the district.
“At first I was thinking of going to Chilliwack because it was cheaper, but when my mother asked me where I’d go if money was not an issue, I said West Vancouver,” Mueller tells me in note-perfect English as she sits at a library table, backpack bursting with textbooks and laptop.
These days entrepreneurialism is the mantra for public schools in B.C. The province and school districts are peddling B.C.’s high school certificate, known as the Dogwood Diploma, to overseas schools. They are also targeting foreign customers with online education and some districts have even opened for-profit companies – complete with CEOs – to pursue other market-based educational opportunities. But attracting international students to fill desks and boost budgets is the big-ticket entrepreneurial thrust.
As enrolment at K-12 public schools declines – close to 70,000 desks have been vacated in B.C. since 2001 – the fight is on for international students, not only in B.C. but across Canada. A 2009 study by Vancouver-based economic consultant Roslyn Kunin and Associates Inc. showed that B.C. far outpaces all other provinces, including Ontario, in K-12 international student recruitment. And bums in seats matter to district administrators; government funding is set mostly on a per-student basis, so when the domestic student body shrinks, non-nationals willing to pay between $12,000 and $14,000 a year in tuition can help fill the coffers. According to the Ministry of Education, 9,783 non-resident students were enrolled in public B.C. high schools and elementary schools in the 2011/12 school year. International students contributed $139 million in tuition fees to school district budgets that year, up almost $10 million from the previous year and well over double the $55 million grossed in 2001/02.
That’s why international program directors in some of the better-positioned districts rack up Air Miles travelling to education fairs in the top markets – Korea, China, Japan, Taiwan and Germany – as well as to emerging markets in rapidly developing economic powerhouses like Brazil. They seek out reputable overseas agents able to connect them to young scholars like Paulina Mueller, or they piggyback on junkets spearheaded by the provincial government and quasi-independent organizations such as the B.C. Council for International Education (BCIE), which gets roughly $1 million in annual government funding to sell B.C.’s K-12 curriculum and post-secondary institutions overseas.