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Teachers’ strike in British Columbia raising concerns for international student programmes

An ongoing labour dispute is raising concerns about the 2014 international student intake in British Columbia, Canada’s westernmost province and a leading destination for the country’s international students.

The labour action by BC’s public school teachers – a full-blown strike which began on 17 June 2014 following a series of rotating walkouts – has so far led to the cancellation of a number of summer programmes and has put the start of the 2014/15 school year into question. The dispute between the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) and the provincial government revolves around issues of wage increases, class composition, and student support measures. Negotiations between the two sides are ongoing but currently subject to a media blackout.

Elementary and secondary students in the rest of Canada returned to school during the first week of September and concerns are rising as to how the labour dispute may affect the estimated 11,000 international students that attend BC’s public schools. The Globe & Mail reports, “Officials at several school districts say only a handful of international students have cancelled their plans to study in BC due to the labour dispute.” Many stakeholders, however, acknowledge concerns about how the strike may affect the province’s reputation abroad.

“We’re known throughout the world as providing first-rate education programmes in a stable, reliable, safe place,” adds Patti Bacchus, the chair of Vancouver School Board. “Having students arrive to no classes is not going to help that brand.”

For the moment, reports from major international student programmes in school districts around BC indicate that the vast majority of international students are arriving as planned and waiting for the school year to begin. The Vancouver School Board reports that, as of the end of August, “fewer than 10” international students had withdrawn for the year. Langley School District, meanwhile, indicates that only a “handful” of its 700 foreign students have cancelled their study plans.

In the absence of regular school programming, some administrators are also taking steps to provide additional support and activities for international students arriving for the start of the school year. The Prince George Citizen quotes a spokesperson for the Delta School District, who says that, “Administrators will be taking students for several more days of field trips that would get them to appreciate Canadian culture and geography.”

The Globe & Mail quotes Barry Bunyon, the director of Langley School District’s international-student programme, who says that if classes don’t resume by mid-month, the district will offer activity programmes during the day for elementary-school children and newly arrived international students.

As in any labour dispute, there is uncertainty as to how and when the issues at hand will be resolved. All sides, however, remain hopeful that an agreement can be reached, that the province’s schools will reopen in the near future, and that students will be able to undertake a complete year of study as planned.

BC has registered record-high international student numbers in recent years. The Ministry of Education recently announced that 112,800 international students attended post-secondary institutions, elementary and secondary schools, and language training schools in the province in 2012/13. This represents a 20% increase over 2009/2010 enrolment levels.

The economic impact of international students in BC is estimated at CDN$2.3 billion, and the sector accounts for an estimated 25,500 jobs in the province. Roughly 10% of the total international enrolment in BC is at the elementary and secondary level.

For the latest information on the teachers’ strike, please see a dedicated website set up by the BC government, as well as bulletins on the BCTF and the British Columbia Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA) websites.

In the meantime, parents of international students 12 years of age or younger are advised that the BC government is extending a special subsidy of CDN$40 for each day that school is not in session due to the current labour disruption.

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