Okanagan Skaha looks to attract international students

International students could bring millions to cash-strapped school district

School officials are hoping to cash in on the region’s abundant charms to attract more international students and bolster the bottom line.

Out-of-country students are big business for some B.C. public school districts, including Vernon, which could take in tuition fees totalling upwards of $2 million this year.

Now the Okanagan Skaha School District, which has suffered several consecutive years of budget cuts, is hoping to get a piece of the action. It simply wasn’t a priority until trustees, following budget deliberations this spring, directed administrators to explore new revenue sources.

“It’s never been a revenue-generating endeavour in this district,” superintendent Wendy Hyer this week told a meeting of the school board’s finance committee.

She is recommending a careful, cost-efficient entry into the international market.

“We’re going to start slowly, and as it builds we’ll look at getting staff in place,” Hyer said.

The plan includes sending an emissary to an event in Miami attended by agents who place international students in North American schools, plus development of new marketing materials. Hyer said the district has $25,000 in an international-education bank account that will be used as seed money.

“You do have to invest some money to recruit students,” she said.

And smart investing can pay off with big dividends.

Officials from the Vernon School District did not respond to requests for comment, but the local newspaper reported it’s hosting 170 international students this year. For two semesters, each of those students would pay $12,000 in tuition, according to the fee schedule on the district website, resulting in revenue totalling $2 million.

By contrast, Okanagan Skaha has 16 international students this year, and tuition for a full-time visitor is set at $11,700. Hyer said the program’s profit margin has never been analyzed and “hasn’t been substantial.”

Okanagan Hockey Academy students are not counted as international students, she added, because they’re covered under a separate business arrangement.

Hyer said any profits from the expanded international program will be reinvested back into it, likely with the hiring of new staff to run it. And agents, who typically take a 15-per-cent cut of a student’s tuition fees, have already contacted her about placing two different groups of up to 40 Korean students here this January.

But Trustee Linda Beaven, a former Summerland high school teacher, warned that welcoming the world into local schools comes with unique challenges.

“My experience with international students was probably the worst in my teaching career,” Beaven said.

She claimed a single student from Hong Kong in one of her English 11 classes took up a quarter of her time.

“I really felt it kind of short-changed the other kids,” Beaven said.

Trustee Ginny Manning, who chairs the board of education, said she supports the plan to attract more international students, so long as it’s done “carefully” and administrators are “mindful of the finances.”

According to a report prepared by the B.C. Teachers’ Federation this past March, international students in the 2010-11 year paid a total of $129.4 million in tuition fees to public school districts throughout the province, up from $55.5 million a decade earlier.

The bulk of the 2010-11 fees went to districts on the Lower Mainland or Vancouver Island. Okanagan Skaha reported revenue of $266,454 that year, while Vernon took in $4.3 million.