Chinese K-12 students a booming demographic for B.C. schools

May 25, 2016

By Chuck Chiang, Vancouver Sun |

The average age of Chinese students arriving in B.C. and Canada is dropping dramatically as growing numbers of international K-12 pupils, not just college students, are enrolling in local schools.

According to a monthly report published by Canadian immigration lawyer Richard Kurland, there is a demographic shift occurring in the kind of student visas being processed by Canada’s embassy in Beijing. Kindergarten-to-Grade 12 students made up 37 per cent of all study permits issued in China last year, a sharp rise from 18 per cent just six years ago. In B.C., there were 1,094 Chinese students enrolled in K-12 in 2009; by 2014, that figure had quadrupled to 4,306.

Kurland says the statistics suggest a shift in the thinking of Chinese families about how to get their children — and perhaps themselves — Canadian residency. He pointed to recent changes in Canadian immigration law that make “Express Entry” a lottery system for international college students, causing Chinese families to seek ways to improve their chances.

“It used to be, if you are from China, and you are in Canada on a college study permit, you had an excellent chance of gaining residency,” Kurland said. “They may have had to wait, but students could say, ‘I know I’m in.’

“The new system threw all of that predictability and transparency out the window. It didn’t make sense to gamble $30,000 to $40,000 a year (on college) if the goal was permanent residence.”

Experts say sending students to Canada at a younger age speeds integration into Canadian society and improves their chances for residency in a number of ways. Kurland speculates that Ottawa may already be looking at changes to give residency preference to students who graduated from Canadian elementary and secondary schools. But there are other reasons why parents are sending their children to B.C. earlier.

Huichen Li, 26, has first-hand experience.

“I have asthma, so my parents thought coming here would be better for my health,” said Li, who is currently president of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association at Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s campus in Richmond. “We thought we could get adjusted earlier by coming earlier.”

Li arrived in Canada as a Grade 10 student and attended North Vancouver’s Bodwell High School, a private international boarding school. He lived in a dorm for a year before his parents followed him.

Randall Martin, executive director of the B.C. Council for International Education, said China’s previous “One-Child Policy” put a lot of pressure on many families’ only child. If a child has the responsibility of possibly supporting all family members as they age, going abroad early can be very important, he said.

“Basically, a child has six guardians: two parents and four grandparents,” Martin said. “Ultimately, the sense from the families is that — if the state can’t support those six people — that one child has to. … And if you’ve got one child, you want the best for his or her health, and that’s not going to be in a major city in China. With the ability of all these relatives to support a student going abroad, it’s almost a no-brainer.”

The enormous market also means many B.C. schools actively court Chinese K-12 students, which concerns some in the industry.

Paul Romani, founder of Vancouver’s Pear Tree Elementary, said his school accepts very few international students, and charges all students similar fees. But many other institutions charge significantly higher fees for international students, giving administrators an incentive to go after more Chinese students, he noted.

“There are some private schools in B.C. that are increasingly exploiting the higher fees charged for international students, as well as the unbelievably generous ‘donations’ … which few B.C. families could ever compete with,” Romani said.

There is also the issue of the well-being of these younger Chinese students outside the classroom. Li recounted how the Canadian education model, with more free time and an emphasis on self-discipline, left him often feeling lost during his first year here.

“I almost felt like I had too much free time,” he said, noting some younger students who come without their parents develop bad habits.

“In China, the schedule is all laid out. Here, if you don’t have class, you can sleep until noon. You may get by like that in high school, but if you bring those habits to college, you’re not going to succeed. I was lucky because I come from a very strict family.”

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