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York University’s low enrolment and reliance on international students putting school at risk: auditor general

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York University’s reliance on international students from China and India, as well as its steadily decreasing domestic enrolment, is putting the institution at risk, according to Ontario’s auditor general.

A report released by acting auditor general Nick Stavropoulos on Wednesday found that 23 per cent of the university’s undergraduate programs had 20 or fewer students enrolled.

Despite this, the number of senior administrators have increased by 37 per cent between 2018-19 and 2022-23. The audit found that 250 new positions had been added primarily to academic staff and faculty while tuition revenue and government grant funding remained flat.

“York University is financially sustainable, but its increasing dependence on revenue from international students, capital expansion projects and a deferred maintenance backlog warrant more attention,” Stavropoulos wrote in a news release.

About 18 per cent of York’s total enrolment comes from international students. Due to the significantly higher fees these students pay, this equates to more than half of York’s tuition revenue.

The risk, the auditor general notes, is that the majority of international enrolment is represented by students from India and China.

“Reliance on a few nations’ students for revenue exposes a university to risk that external factors, like a shift in foreign policy, could suddenly and significantly impact financial health,” the report says.

The university has contracted two agencies to help recruit international students from other countries. Since March 2022, this action has resulted in 20 students enrolled.

Stavropoulos also noted the university was performing below the provincial average when it came to graduation rates, graduate employment in their related field, and in research funding. York University said that over 67 per cent of students work part time to financially support their studies and may take longer to graduate, and that performance metric results are “impacted by its accessible admission policies.”

The university noted that comparing institutions with different mandates and histories will have “limitations,” especially given a tuition freeze imposed on York by the provincial government.

“Compounding this situation is the increase of new regulations and responsibilities, ranging from sexual violence prevention, Indigenous and equity initiatives, to sustainability and carbon reductions. This context necessitates our continued focus on attracting an increasingly diverse and global population of international students.”

MANY FACULTIES OPERATING AT DEFICIT

Of York University’s 10 faculties, only four sustained themselves financially over a five-year period, the report said.

The auditor general noted that while the institution is operating in a financially sound place, it does have a $600-million debt and only a partial plan in place to manage it.

If this is not managed in a timely way, the auditor general warns, it “could negatively impact the university in the future.”

The report also found the university has been spending less than expected on maintenance, resulting in a growing backlog of deferred repairs.

“Between the 2019 and 2023 calendar years, York’s deferred maintenance backlog more than doubled, from $459 million to $1.04 billion,” the report said. “We found that York conducted little preventative/scheduled maintenance of its assets, but rather completed most repairs after an asset failed or malfunctioned (such as emergency repairs).”

Of the capital projects the auditor general reviewed, he found that considerations such as design, risk assessment or financial viability assessments were not completed. The majority of these projects also exceeded their budgets.

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