The question of quotas

Policy not wrong, but transparency lacking

For over a year, the faculty of engineering has faced allegations of discrimination towards international students.

These allegations stem from engineering’s goal to admit between 12 and 15 per cent international students each year. Once this quota has been met, academically qualified international students are denied admission in favour of domestic students with lower GPAs.

The oft-cited example is that in 2014, the last international student accepted into civil engineering had a GPA of 4.13, while the last domestic student accepted had a GPA of 2.94. Student groups held multiple protests on this issue, including one last year profiled in the Winnipeg Free Press.

Readers of that paper might remember that education reporter Nick Martin took a cynical tone. He noted that several students held signs reading “I have a 4.0 and I couldn’t get in.” But when he interviewed the students holding those signs, none were actually in that situation. On his blog, Nick Martin later quipped, “What part of ‘I’ is so hard to understand?”

I’m sympathetic to international students who were denied admission by engineering’s quota system. My paternal grandfather was subject to the Jewish quota when he applied to medicine at the University of Manitoba in the 1930s. It’s frustrating to be denied admission to a faculty based on a single, non-academic characteristic.

But the quota placed on international students is a different beast than the Jewish quota. The Jewish quota was based on the erroneous belief that certain ethnic groups would never be welcomed as physicians, and therefore it was pointless to provide them with a medical education. The rationale behind the international student quota is more substantiated than that.

As the province’s most prominent public engineering school, the faculty of engineering has a social mandate to supply Manitoba with engineers. To accomplish this, the faculty limits admission of international students, who are more likely to leave the province after graduation than students from Manitoba. If the faculty of engineering gave into protesters’ demands and eliminated the international quota, the faculty would risk failing its social responsibility.

Protesters would never want a public institution to fail its social responsibility. The protesters’ frustration could be alleviated if engineering was more transparent about the rationale behind its admission policy. The faculty needs to publish and publicize the data on graduate retention. It needs to clearly show that students from Manitoba are more likely to stay in the province than international students are.

Students can, and will, protest against seemingly arbitrary quotas, but they can’t so easily protest against evidence-based admission policies.

More than just publishing the data, engineering needs to conduct ongoing studies to enhance its admission model. The faculty needs to find more characteristics than simply country of origin by which to evaluate an applicant’s likelihood of staying in Manitoba after graduation. With a sample size of over 300 students admitted each year, engineering can easily collect this data over several admission cycles.

The more the faculty of engineering studies and understands student retention, the more factors it can integrate into its admission model.

Deciding admission based on GPA and a single personal characteristic screams discrimination. Deciding admission based on GPA and multiple personal characteristics is deciding admission on individual merit, which is the opposite of discrimination.