Prince Edward Island's Holland College is leading a fight against a decades-old rule that limits the number of foreign students who can dress for varsity sports teams, saying it hampers international recruitment.
For 20 years the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association has restricted the number of international students who can play on these teams to one in six players, to maintain parity and guarantee spots for Canadians.
Now, Holland is the most vocal of several schools that want the rule scrapped, saying it is outdated, unjust and harmful to Canada's new focus on international recruitment. The college is concerned enough that it recently wrote to James Moore, the Minister of Canadian Heritage, asking him to intervene.
The roster cap applies to the CCAA's first-tier varsity sports. Telling potential recruits these teams may not have room for them "can put a real damper on an otherwise positive conversation," said Michael O'Grady, Holland's vice-president of innovation, enterprise and strategic development.
"It does affect our ability to recruit international students," he said. "But the rule itself bothers me deeply because I believe it's discriminatory in nature."
Colleges and universities are eager to lure more international students to boost revenues, diversify campuses and, in some provinces, maintain enrolments in the face of demographic decline. About 4 per cent of Holland College's 2,600 students come from outside Canada – mostly the Bahamas, China and the northeastern United States – but that number is growing fast. Positive word of mouth is key to sustaining interest, Mr. O'Grady says, and every student who goes elsewhere or has a subpar experience dampens that buzz.
Lynn Wall was raised in Thailand and New Jersey, but played high school basketball in Nova Scotia before enrolling at Holland in 2009. The 21-year-old wound up in a rotation of three international students, only two of whom could dress for each contest, and was routinely sidelined. Partly for that reason, she moved back to New Jersey after a year.
"I loved it there. It just didn't work out," she said. "[It was]highly upsetting but … it kind of makes sense because they want [Canadian students]to play."
A majority of Atlantic schools supported Holland in advancing a motion at last year's annual CCAA meeting, proposing the cap be eased to two in six players – a first step intended to build momentum for change. But it was voted down by a majority of schools in the CCAA's four other regions.
"There [are]some institutions or coaches that have pipelines to athletes in other countries," said Blair Webster, executive director of the Ontario Colleges Athletic Association. "One of the goals of varsity athletics is to develop Canadian athletes that move through the system, and hopefully go on to national teams."
Mr. O'Grady was dismayed at the vote, saying the rule ensures international students "don't enjoy the same rights" as domestic students. But the college isn't giving up.
In January, Holland appealed to Mr. Moore to use his influence over Sport Canada, a major funding source for collegiate athletics, to spur change. The school has yet to receive a reply, but in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail, Minister of State for Sport Bal Gosal said colleges must make their own decisions, and he hopes "they will balance the interests of Canadian athletes with the goal of increasing international students."
Mark Barrett, a 19-year-old Bahamian who finished high school in the United States, followed a friend to Holland College but has twice been cut from the men's basketball team. Coach George Morrison said if Mr. Barrett's skill were the only factor, he would be on the roster.
"[My college experience]would have been better if I was able to play basketball," Mr. Barrett said. "It still hurts."
Canadian Interuniversity Sport, the more high-profile league that governs the country's university sports programs, has no such cap, with one exception: men's basketball, where three international players are allowed. Even so, foreign students remain a small proportion of their student athletes.
By the same token, Mr. Morrison sees no evidence that collegiate sports would be overrun with talent from abroad without the CCAA rule to protect it. "I don't think we'd have a roster full of non-Canadians if [the restriction]was lifted entirely," he said.