Lousy reporting targets Canada’s higher education

“An early contender for the worst article of the back-to-school period,” was Alex Usher’s reaction upon coming across an article by Douglas Todd in the Vancouver Sun titled “The pros and cons of foreign students.” Melonie Fullick’s reaction was closer to mine. The article called for a round of “Crap detection in the higher education news.” There is only one use for the article by Douglas Todd: as the ultimate example for students in schools of journalism of what shoddy journalism is all about.

The title is already misleading as it points to the “pros and cons of foreign students,” while the article itself is nothing but a non-disguised attempt at trashing the whole concept of hosting international students. This starts with the subtitle, which asserts “Canada is pillaging many poorer countries of their best and brightest and using them as ‘cash cows’ for its institutions.”

Melonie Fullick already points to Douglas Todd’s use of the term “foreign students,” which “suggests strangeness and unfamiliarity, or “other-ness,” as opposed to “international students,” which describe national origins or/and citizenship.

But there is more to these not-so subliminal linguistic tricks. Todd refers to “the flood of foreign students,” to “the river of foreign students,” to the “foreign-student phenomenon,” to “this expanding cohort,” and to “this growing educational army.” Scary stuff!

Granted, this is the season when some Canadian parents are unhappy that their children didn’t make it to their preferred universities for one reason or another. It is however unfortunate that some think it is the right time to play on their disappointment and get them to watch out from this horde of foreigners overrunning Canadian universities and  “crowding-out” the true citizens.

There is no question that the recruitment of international students raises complex issues that will need to be addressed through data collection and rigourous analysis. The problem is that all these “cons” in Todd’s article are neither established nor substantiated by any credible study or data.

As pointed out by Fullick, Todd relies on the words of Philip Resnick, who acknowledges that he has never researched the subject. But since they couldn’t find any Canadian data on costs/benefits of international students, they both refer to an 11-year old study of the US system by George Borjas. This Harvard economist, who seems to be known for his anti-immigration (and anti-international student) stance claimed to have “discovered foreign students have displaced local students, particularly white males, especially in graduate schools.”

There are many more colourful (literally) parts to the Todd article, like when he takes a swing at “the three million people with Canadian passports who live outside of the country. Many people in this category (HOW MANY?) obtain subsidized Canadian educations, even though neither they nor their parents have contributed significantly (HOW MUCH?) to Canadian tax coffers.”

I refer to Melonie Fullick’s article about the other issues raised by Mr. Todd (The connection to “Crazy Rich Asians,” “the language challenge, which some local students say is harming the quality of classroom interactions,” and the (predictable) opinions of the Canada’s Centre for Immigration Policy Reform).

But let’s have some fun and talk a bit about the author’s use of numbers to make his case.

The article starts with “…in the past few decades: The number of foreign students in the country has roughly tripled to more than 250,000.” Don’t you think the readers need to know exactly how many decades it took for the tripling? Plus, by how much the total student body has increased overall during these “few decades.” The number given is essentially meaningless unless shown as a proportion over a well defined period of time.

Then, after stating that there are currently 250K international students, Mr. Todd later discusses “doubling” that “to 450,000”. Oops!

But here is the best one. “What are taxpayers to make of this expanding cohort, who now make up 20 per cent of all B.C. students? At the University of B.C., international young people comprise almost one out of six of the 57,000 students.

This is really puzzling when one considers Todd’s focus on the role of University of B.C. President Stephen Toope in “aggressively recruiting offshore Asian students …”. There are only 2 ways to understand it:

Either the author doesn’t know that one out of six is less than 20%, or the author thinks that the reader wouldn’t know that one out of six is less than 20%.

I would further recommend that journalism students use this article as an example of poor numeracy and statistics usage in reporting.

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9 Responses to Lousy reporting targets Canada’s higher education

  1. As someone who has been working for years to bring more students from U.S. minority groups into mathematics (I happen to be U.S. First Nations myself and have seen how often my mitakuyepi, my relatives, have been excluded from higher education), I am always amazed at the entitlement syndrome displayed in writings like Todd’s: “If my children don’t get into the University of Michigan, or UBC, or Berkeley, it must be because some inferior and undeserving [fill in the blank here; foreigner or minority will do, but there are many other choices] must have taken their places.” It is easy for First Nations people in particular to see the deep irony in such statements, but North America has been remarkably enriched by the mixture of cultures we have seen over the last half millenium, and we need to remember that, historically, the greatest, final victims of xenophobia have generally been the xenophobes.

    (Postscript to correct one erratum in Nassif’s fine posting: As a friend of mathematician Bruce Reznick, who in the 35 years I have known him has been a solid advocate for the underrepresented, I’ll point out that he is not the UBC political scientist Philip Resnick mentioned in Todd’s article.)

    • Douglas Todd says:

      Given Bob Megginson’s slight towards Prof. Phil Resnick, a clarification is in order. It seems Megginson has never heard of Prof. Resnick. If he had, he would know that Resnick has devoted a significant part of his highly respected career as an academic and public intellectual to providing a voice to the under-represented and victims of injustice. He is a specialist on Quebec and European politics. He is also more fearless than most academics. He is willing to say things that might upset the administration and other faculty, who tend to benefit from foreign students in that their fees create more teaching jobs. As my column points out, the vast majority of foreign students are from wealthy families, including in the developing world. (A small portion are on scholarships.) How else could most foreign students afford the tuition fees and high cost of living in Vancouver? Is this the “underrepresented” that Megginson worries is not getting a fair shake from the Canadian education system?

  2. Ghoussoub says:

    Thanks Bob. Yes, it is Philip. It is now corrected.

  3. Alex Harddach says:

    Regardless of the author’s numeracy, I notice that your response has not answered any of the criticisms. And with all due respect to Mr. Megginson, I hardly think the issue is that parents don’t want underrepresented minorities to attend UBC. The high foreign student tuitions are surely the biggest barrier in that regard. For example, the Science tuition is now $4,794 for domestic students and $23,300 for foreign students. (That’s 4.86 times as much.)

    My point is that instead of pointing out someone’s math problems, we would be better served by hearing your typically lucid thoughts on what the right proportions are. Canada needs well-educated and hard-working immigrants – always has – but at the same time UBC is funded almost entirely by Canadian taxpayers.

    • Nick says:

      Math is important when we’re talking about aggregate factors, and when numbers are this central to someone’s argument. Sloppy math simply shows us that the facts are less important to Todd than his feelings about ‘foreign students.’

  4. Ghoussoub says:

    Alex: I did acknowledge “that the recruitment of international students raises complex issues”. The blogpost was actually more about shoddy journalism than about the issues per se because I simply don’t have all the information or all the answers. In any case, how can you address “criticisms” when it is only a reflexion of personal (essentially xenophobic) tendencies and not based on verifiable data?
    I also checked with UBC and they say that they are at about 12% “foreign” students in the undergraduate programme.
    I also vaguely recall (from BoG meetings) that the provincial grant to UBC from the provincial government is about 48% of the total UBC budget.
    I also know that UBC accepts many more domestic students (about 2000 more if my memory serves me right) than what the BC government grant requires. The provincial grant is proportional to a certain number of FTEs of Canadian students that the University is required to enroll. UBC exceeds this number, and this is before accounting for international students. I hope this helps.

  5. Douglas Todd says:

    I ask anyone who reads this contempt-filled blog posting by Nassif Ghoussobb to actually read the column I wrote in The Vancouver Sun on foreign students, in which I quote veteran UBC political science professor Philip Resnick and others. The piece in The Sun looks at the positive and possibly negative things about the rise in foreign students in Canada and B.C. Prof. Ghoussobb does not really address any of the issues raised — except to strongly suggest my take on them is absolutely crazy and morally disgusting. But instead he points at what he sees as my misuse of numbers. The trouble is he misquotes me on every example he cites. Talk about poor journalism/reporting. I’ll try to be brief. First, there is no contradiction between the current 250,000 figure and the 450,000 figure. The latter was someone’s policy recommendation. Second. Prof. Ghoussobb acts like there is a contradiction between one-sixth and 20 per cent. But they are referring to proportions of different things. The first is about the proportion of UBC students and the second is about the proportion of all B.C. students. Thirdly, Prof. Ghoussobb says he asked someone at UBC how many foreign students and was told 12 per cent. This figure doesn’t take into account grad students, who are far more likely to be foreign students. In short, I do not understand Prof. Ghoussobb’s vehemence — or his gross misrepresentation of my column. He is enjoying criticizing a journalist. But I must say I would have expected better of a professor.

  6. Ghoussoub says:

    Better! I commend you for taking on this critical issue. But more relevant points to the debate are still missing.

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