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In my opinion

What internationalization should really be about

Talent in the 21st century is as much about diplomacy, trade and prosperity as it is about education and discovery.


With the much-anticipated report of the Advisory Panel on Canada’s International Education Strategy soon to be released, attention is set once again to focus on the why’s and how’s of the internationalization of higher education in this country. Both the panel (led by Western University’s President Amit Chakma) and postsecondary institutions need to grapple with some fundamental issues, including how to build public support, if they are to succeed in this realm. And they will need to choose well: their decisions will define the course of action for years, as well as determine the role that our higher education institutions play in mobilizing talent and innovations around the world. Their decisions will affect the landscape of innovation in Canada and hence the sustained growth and stability of the economy. The reason is simple: talent is increasingly one of the world’s most important natural resources.

This national discussion is badly needed. Unfortunately, internationalization efforts in this country, to date, have been driven far less by vision and principle than by budgetary factors and the belief, based on prior experience, that fee-paying international students will help the bottom line of both governments and institutions. The fact is that governments are investing less in higher education while also constraining tuition fees. Recruitment of international students thus appears as a quick-and-easy fix. It is our current reality.

This notion, however, is completely at odds with a growing appreciation worldwide of the critical role that internationalization can offer universities and colleges and society, more generally. It is also counter to the strategies and actions of many of our prospective international partners. Previously some of the poorest large countries are now the sought-after powerhouses of the global knowledge economy – among them Brazil, India, China and South Africa. They, and many leading European and American institutions and agencies, have interpreted the economic imperative of the internationalization of higher education in much broader terms than that of fee-paying students: rather, as national wealth-creation and stability.

Their enlightened approach has been straightforward. They are investing and leveraging resources in education, research and knowledge transfer to build and sustain capacity for institutional excellence. They are taking full advantage of e-technology and other innovative academic models to help meet the labour needs of their private and public sectors. Along with strategically recruiting students, they are creating domestic and international networks through student and faculty interaction by implementing a series of targeted international activities. These include:

  • aggressively sending their students and faculty abroad, promoting research and professional development internships and faculty exchange, and recruiting internationally educated faculty through programs like Germany’s Humboldt Foundation, the China Scholarship Council and more recently Brazil’s Science Without Borders program;
  • creating signature academic programs such as the Monash-Warwick model of global connectivity and competitions, like Hong Kong Polytechnic’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Global Student Challenge and Singularity University Global Impact Competition, scholarships and joint/sandwich degrees accessible for the brightest and boldest anywhere in the world;
  • forming influential international networks and associations to mobilize talent in support of global research and knowledge transfer, to share information and to advance policies for increasing investment and measuring impact; and
  • combining these with the use of e-technology and social media as powerful tools for raising the profile, outreach, and increasing public access to relevant information for aiding talent recruitment and retention.

They have taken full advantage of strategic collaborations with other universities as well as with industry, NGOs, global associations and their alumni who lead these institutions. New models of partnerships have been essential for faculty and students pursuing collaborative activities in important regions of the world and in important areas of research, public policy and commercialization. The lesson conveyed from these efforts is clear: talent in the 21st century is as much about diplomacy, trade and prosperity as it is about education and discovery. Only by pursuing a similar approach to internationalization will Canada’s role be assured among the best and most influential in the world. The international role of Canadian universities, aided by government strategy, should be to:

  • form international networks and associations that will mobilize talent in support of global research and knowledge transfer, share information and advance policies for increasing investment and measuring impact;
  • produce talent across the disciplines and from around the world to serve; manage, govern and innovate in the public and private sectors;
  • conduct research that could lead to discovery and understanding of complex issues;
  • contribute to cultural, social, organizational and scientific innovations through knowledge translation and commercialization; and
  • foster international relations.

In the end, the strategy should be about aiding postsecondary institutions to produce made-in-Canada talent with the activities the institutions select and the processes they implement to support internationalization in the emerging, global knowledge economy.

International strategies should be constructed in exactly the same way as domestic institutional strategies, just globally focused. And Canada has some stellar examples such as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s CREATE program, the Social Science and Humanities Research Council’s Partnership Awards Program, the International Development Research Centre’s Science and Innovation Program, Ontario’s Trillium International Scholarships, MITACS Globalink, and Grand Challenges Canada to complement continued recruitment of world-class faculty. The federal role is to continue to identify and give incentives to universities and colleges to build on these initiatives while carrying out more targeted programs, particularly by sending our students abroad, and to support them to select the right partners in Canada’s priority sectors.

A sustained and integrated gateway strategy, through which institutions establish a pipeline to talent, networks, linkages and countries in strategic priority areas, more than traditional marketing, is what will open the doors and raise awareness to the global community of the vast potential that a Canadian college or university can offer over other international destinations. Then, top talent and institutions around the world will want to work with and study at our colleges and universities. This is the promise that a Canadian government-led international strategy must deliver if Canadian institutions are to stand a chance of competing internationally with the best and of serving domestic and international students alike, and ultimately all Canadians.

Lorna Jean Edmonds is executive advisor to the vice-president, research at the University of Ottawa.

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  1. Theresa Hyland / July 27, 2012 at 14:09

    I read with interest Lorna Edmonds’ observations about how universities should foster international relations, but found two of her statements alarming. The first was

    “International strategies should be constructed in exactly the same way as domestic institutional strategies, just globally focused.” Such a statement could be interpreted by universities as an invitation to ignore the cultural differences and distinct needs that international faculty and students bring to our institutions. International partnerships are not just paper contracts that, once signed, inevitably evolve into successful relationships. Such partnerships must be constantly nurtured through personal contact across countries and by continuous monitoring of the personal and professional impact of the relationship for all partners. In international relations, treating everyone the same does not always result in fairness to all partners. In fact, I’ve seen many well-meaning international partnerships flounder because Canadian institutions assumed that they could treat these partners as if they were Canadians. The second phrase that sounded alarm bells for me was “establish a pipeline to talent, networks, linkages and countries in strategic priority areas.” While I’m sure that Professor Edmonds meant this to be a two-way system of interaction, the metaphor of the pipeline, given our oil-based economy, conjures up visions of resources being moved from one place to another —- of taking rather than receiving or sharing talented people. Of course, the whole idea of “priority areas” is again suspect. By attempting to disengage the engineering and scientific talents that we wish to exploit from their cultural and historic context, we lose out and so do the people we interact with. Internationalization is all about people interacting with people, and sharing the pain and the profits that ensue.

  2. John Boon / July 30, 2012 at 09:54

    This article by Lorna Edmonds is interesting, but it appears to be another effort by an academic thinker to try and think their way out of the reality they face – that the relationship between an institution and student is commercial and contractual in nature. The courts have spoken loudly and clearly on this. It is not an option or alternative way to think about the relationship. It is legal reality. The sooner everyone adjusts and starts to manage and regulate with that reality in mind the better.

    What Ms. Edmonds talks about is not offensive or unreasonable and not incompatible with commercial and contractual reality, but her ideas cannot stand alone.

    John Boon, HKMK Law Corporation, Vancouver and author of Education Futures: Commercial Reality, Law, Innovation and Opportunity.

  3. Miriam Summers / August 4, 2012 at 18:49

    Lorna Edmonds article brings to fruition theories of ideas on finances universities world-wide may contemplate. Exchange of diverse cultural, research discoveries and educational scholarship among international universities may soon fall lame. Or they may not necessary be priority for student recruitment. Increased university value through financial woos may be on the minds of administration leadership as government begin to decrease their financial supports to universities.

    Is it fair game to promote academic student exchange to promote the financial gain of international universities? Academia and research may continue to be top reasons to admit students, but what they contribute financially and spend may be closely considered in the selection process.