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Canadian universities shift recruitment efforts in the Trump era

As President Trump’s travel ban makes its way through the courts, Canadian universities reach out to international students and scholars facing uncertain futures in the U.S.


On January 27, when President Donald Trump announced an executive order to ban citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States, Amer Bin Muhana heard the news in the safety of his dorm room at Carleton University in Ottawa. The undergraduate student immediately understood the repercussions the executive order might have on his future.

“I was surprised and shocked. I heard some rumours but didn’t expect it to happen. … Decent people will think that’s not something to agree with,” says Mr. Bin Muhana.

Originally from Yemen, Mr. Bin Muhana just finished his third year in Carleton’s electrical engineering program and had planned to pursue a master’s degree at a university in the U.S. He is now considering staying in Canada following the Trump administration’s non-inclusive position towards Muslims.

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable going there if they already rejected me because of my nationality. They’re just saying implicitly that we’re all not allowed because we might do something bad there.”

On February 9, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a Seattle judge’s motion to block Mr. Trump’s first executive order. On March 6, the U.S. president signed a revised version of the executive order from which Iraq was removed. However, it still targeted citizens of Libya, Iran, Yemen, Syria, Sudan, and Somalia.

The new order banned all refugees from entering the country for 120 days, and banned the issuance of new visas (including student visas) to the six majority-Muslim countries for 90 days. That order was suspended by federal judges in Maryland and Hawaii.

This month, the federal Justice Department is making its case in the Court of Appeals to strike down the lower courts’ rulings and reinstate the executive order. In the meantime, on April 18, Mr. Trump signed a measure to revamp the H-1B visa program, which temporarily brings highly skilled foreign workers to the U.S., including some professors, researchers and postdocs. Since it also allows international graduates of American universities to work in the U.S. for a short time after completing their studies, the order could further affect prospective international students’ interest in the U.S.

A more welcoming country

Mr. Bin Muhana is one of many students worldwide who may choose to forego the U.S. in search of a more welcoming country to study in. For many, that country might be Canada.

Following the original ban in January, some Canadian universities waived application fees and extended deadlines in support of those people that the ban targeted. Some postsecondary institutions also modified their recruitment strategies, sensing that the political climate in the U.S. could mean more international students enrolling in Canadian universities.

One of those institutions is the University of Regina. In the past, it has mainly worked with recruitment agencies to attract student athletes from the U.S. Livia Castellanos, U of R’s associate vice-president, international, says they are “seriously considering” increasing their recruitment of American and international students in the U.S., who may want to relocate to Canada.

“We’re commencing to develop a strategy and we are exploring different avenues through different events that are coming up in the next few months,” says Ms. Castellanos, adding that such events include education fairs in Minnesota and other Midwest states.

Laurentian University is also increasing its recruitment efforts. Dominic Giroux, outgoing president and vice-chancellor of the university, says that historically, Laurentian has recruited from countries like China, India, Nigeria, Burundi and Pakistan. But following the U.S. presidential election, staff experimented on social media, inviting American students to come study in Canada.

“We put forward some tongue-in-cheek advertising saying, ‘Four-year term, four-year degrees. Come to Laurentian University,’” recalls Mr. Giroux.

He says that since 2008, the university has seen its international student enrollment double, and that next fall he expects international applications to rise by another 67 percent.

Applications rising steadily

Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada, says international student applications have been rising steadily at Canadian universities over the past 10 years. He says high-quality postsecondary experience, affordability and Canada’s typically welcoming nature are main reasons for this increased interest.

However, Mr. Davidson adds that the Brexit vote and the presidential election in the U.S. have also been more recent catalysts re-orienting international students towards Canada.

“There is a great opportunity here for Canada and we all have to work together to seize it, and make sure to attract the best students we can,” Mr. Davidson says.

According to Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, in the U.S., more than 15,450 students and 2,100 scholars from the six banned countries studied and conducted research at U.S. universities during the 2015-16 academic year.

“The pipeline of new students and scholars from those countries – many of whom are in the midst of the college application process – is now cut off,” Mr. McPherson noted in a written statement. He added that this could also lead students and scholars from countries not targeted by the ban to discount the U.S. when deciding on international opportunities.

At Laurentian, Mr. Giroux says that if the executive order remains in place, Canadian universities might see an increased demand from the six targeted countries to study in Canada for the 2018-19 academic year.

“We’ve had specific instances where I’ve received very strong pleas and emails from students from those countries,” says Mr. Giroux.

He mentions a student from Iran who “ranks up among the best students at his university in Tehran,” and who, following the initial executive order, decided to apply to Laurentian’s new master of architecture program. “He had applied in the U.S. and had received offers from a number of schools, and now is unable to pursue those opportunities,” explains Mr. Giroux. In those instances, he says, the university reviews the applications on a case-by-case basis and waives application deadlines when necessary. “We don’t want artificial barriers to stand in the way of welcoming top students at the university,” he says.

Universities responded by waiving fees, extending deadlines

Following the initial executive order in January, McGill University’s faculty of law reached out to graduate students targeted by the ban and waived the application deadline, and the student-run Legal Information Clinic at McGill launched the website to assist travellers denied entry to the U.S.

Likewise, the University of Toronto announced it would extend application deadlines and help students transferring from other institutions. Memorial University announced it would waive application fees and that it was exploring first-semester scholarship support for affected students, and the University of Ottawa said it was making efforts to accelerate the admissions process for affected students and to integrate displaced graduate students into existing research teams where possible. At least a dozen other universities announced similar measures in the days and weeks after the travel ban was announced.

U of R also waived fees and application deadlines, which Ms. Castellanos says was part of their recruitment strategy, but also a gesture to “show that Canada is an inclusive place and that we feel for the people who are under those circumstances.”

She also notes that when the initial executive order was temporarily in effect, U of R offered safety training to “mitigate any risk” for professors and students travelling across the U.S. border.

Carleton established “a support plan to help students who were supposed to pass through the U.S. or stay there,” ensuring they wouldn’t be left stranded while the travel ban was active, and would be given alternative choices, says Robert Finlayson, an international recruitment officer at the university. However, the university decided against waiving applications fees and extending deadlines, deeming such exemptions unfair to prospective students who had applied prior to the ban, says Mr. Finlayson. He noted that the university instead prioritized a communications plan to help guide students through the decision to come to Carleton, particularly those students currently attending institutions in the U.S. “There are a lot of really technical questions of what that [transfer] actually means,” he says.

Mr. Bin Muhana says he is grateful for the support and help that Canadian universities have provided to international students that were – and may yet be – affected by the ban. “I think this is not something strange for Canada or Canadians in general because, they were supportive of me personally when I came here,” he says.

But Mr. Bin Muhana says that he is still willing to reconsider completing his master’s in the U.S. if the administration changes its stance on Muslim people and Muslim countries. “I guess I’ll have to wait and see.”

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