When McMaster University negotiated its Strategic Mandate Agreement with the provincial government in 2014, 6,000 spots were allotted to domestic graduate students in the province.

However, only 2,400 were filled. To solve the problem of low demand from domestic graduate students and drive the economy, the provincial government spearheaded an internationalization strategy aimed at recruiting international students to Ontario universities.

In the wake of this effort, in February 2018, McMaster unveiled a plan to slash tuition for international PhD students.

In particular, come September, international PhD students at the university will only be charged the domestic student fee.

Though the Ontario government and, by extension, McMaster’s policy change is being lauded for its efforts to drive sustainable economic growth, the long-term effects of the policy on the labour market, specifically in Hamilton, are not clear.

In September 2017, only domestic PhD students were eligible for full funding by the province.

However, in October, this changed as the provincial government introduced its internationalization strategy in a letter to Ontario universities.

The letter outlined the government’s commitment to increasing support for international PhD students in the province.

Motivating this change was the fact that an insufficient number of domestic students opted into Ontario PhD programs in the years before.

To solve this problem, the government mandated that 10 to 15 per cent of PhD allocations be used to fund international PhD students.

The policy change is being praised by the university. Doug Welch, vice-provost and dean of graduate studies at McMaster, claimed that the policy change will drive economic growth, both in Ontario and Hamilton.

This perceived economic benefit is substantiated by a 2015 Statistics Canada study that illustrated that almost half (49 per cent) of international students who came to Canada in the early 2000s to pursue graduate education ended up acquiring permanent residence.

Motivating this change was the fact that an insufficient number of domestic students opted into Ontario PhD programs in the years before.

Welch argues that, by increating the affordability of PhD education, increasingly more international students will come to Canada, obtain permanent residence and boost the economy.

This argument is well-founded. Yet I believe it hinges on an assumption, namely that obtaining permanent residence directly leads to a de facto boost to the economy.

The Statistics Canada study does not explore the ways in which international students contribute to the labour market in the long-term.

Rather, it assumes that, after obtaining permanent residence, international students will enter sectors and conduct research that results in explosive and sustainable economic growth.

The study fails to consider what fields international PhD students are predominantly studying, what sectors they are predominantly entering, whether these sectors are likely to drive long-term economic growth, and whether these sectors are experiencing rising precarity.

Failing to address these dimensions of the issue, the argument seems to lack nuance.

Moreover, the study uses data from across the country, not the province or Hamilton.

The Ontario government does not include this information on its website; this is likely because, according to a 2016 Statistics Canada study, only nine per cent of university students in Ontario are international students.

Moreover, studies highlighting students’ long-term contributions to Hamilton’s labour market also appear to be unavailable.

There is also a lack of data that is specific to international PhD students, both in Hamilton and more broadly. The number of PhD graduates typically significantly outnumbers demand for permanent contracts and postdocs.

As a result, PhD graduates tend to struggle to find a permanent job in academia. As a result, it is not explicit that said PhD students are driving long-term economic growth in the first place.

Through a socio-cultural and wider economic lens, the effort to attract international students is fruitful. The exact ways in which said students will contribute to the labour market in the long-term, however, remains difficult to predict.

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