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Margin Notes

A bit more nuance needed in our international education strategy

For this to succeed, it must be a mutually beneficial exchange.


There’s a strong case to be made about the benefits to Canada of attracting more international students to our universities and colleges. And setting an aspirational goal of doubling the number of those students, from around 240,000 in 2011 (according to the federal government), to more than 450,000 by 2022, is a fine idea – provided universities have the additional resources necessary to welcome these students and to help them succeed.

So, from that perspective, I take no issue with the federal government’s recently announced International Education Strategy. Others have panned it but I leave it to them to make their case.

Throughout, the strategy makes numerous mentions of what an increase in international students would mean for Canada economically – how it will “create new jobs,” “address skills and labour shortages” and lead to “economic growth and long-term prosperity.” The document further points out that attracting more international students will “provide an annual boost to the Canadian economy of almost $10 billion; and generate approximately $910 million in new tax revenues.”

Again, all fine things, in general. Who isn’t for increased economic activity? And, let’s be honest, education is a service – an economic good, a commodity – that is bought and sold on the international market. Canada has a good product to sell, and why shouldn’t it market this internationally?

However, I think those in the higher-education community would feel more comfortable if the messaging were a bit more nuanced. What of the non-economic benefits to Canadians – the cultural benefits, the increase in openness and tolerance, the personal connections?  And, more importantly, what of the benefits to the international students themselves? For this to succeed, it must be a mutually beneficial exchange.

Perhaps, some would say, that message is implicit in the document. The strategy does point out the numerous advantages to studying in Canada: a welcoming, safe and multicultural country offering a “high-quality education at an attractive price,” high-quality research facilities, and so on. I just wish the pitch didn’t sound so mercantile.

As an aside, I did read grumblings in social media and elsewhere that there was no better indication of this slant than the fact that the document opened with a note from the minister of international trade. To that, I would point out two things: there is no federal minister of education, so who else should it be? As well, let’s keep in mind that education is a provincial responsibility, and the federal government is no doubt keenly aware that it must tread carefully on this turf. Pitching international education as a trade issue thus makes sense, as that is indisputably an area of federal concern.

The document ended with a quote from Karen McBride, president and CEO of the Canadian Bureau for International Education. It reads in part: “importantly,” the new international strategy “points to a broader vision of the value of international education for Canada and for our partners around the world, as international education builds the diplomacy of knowledge and gives the next generation of Canadian and international students the tools they need to contribute to global society in meaningful ways.”

That is an admirable sentiment which I heartily endorse. Let’s hope.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Todd / January 29, 2014 at 19:39

    I too hope more resources, such as Pathway teachers and the necessary learning materials they need, are provided because many of these foreign students do not have the proficiency in English or French to academic succeed nor know what the expectations are of them as students in a Canadian university. Much like children of immigrants who need extra language learning support during their primary and secondary education.
    Let them in or they will go to the States, take their money, let them flounder and fail, then get a new batch and repeat the cycle. This churn’em and burn’em cycle is what will happen if these resources are not provided.

  2. Theresa Camilleri / January 29, 2014 at 19:46

    I think I should accept the views put forward regarding the financial benefits mainly because I lack a depth of knowledge of finance.

    I have no doubt that, if I were to settle in any other country in the world, the government and academic organizations would not bend any given rule just to accommodate my beliefs, be they social or religious. I would, on the other hand, hope to have the freedom to exercise “ways of living” that do not interfere with any community I find myself in. I therefore think that the acceptance of students from foreign lands is a good thing for us Canadians in so far as this helps us to broaden our horizons but not if it is a matter of making concessions that militate against the fabric of the Canadian society.

  3. Bharathiar University / January 31, 2014 at 02:19

    Foreign students should be given equal treatment no matter what country he will be studying.

  4. SC / February 5, 2014 at 14:03

    Great article and I genrally agree with the premises. The lack of English skills among international undergrads can be a concerns- hopefully this can be addressed by insisting IELTS (rather than the much easier TOEFL) scores prior to admission.

    Finally, all students are free to practise their creed in Canada (as guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms) and I (a secular non-religious Canadian citizen) am yet to meet a student (international or otherwise) who wanted to “interfere” with my ways of living. Perhaps, we should all take a close look at the mirror before judging others.

  5. Ryan Dunch / February 5, 2014 at 14:23

    What I find dispiriting in this document and in our national discussion of “international education” more generally is the relative silence about getting Canadian students to study abroad as part of their undergraduate degrees. It compares very unfavorably, to my mind, with initiatives like these in the US, which have strong federal government backing and extensive support from the major foundations, as well as some high-profile corporate sponsorship:
    Australia provides another contrast with Canada, assuming that continues under the Abbott government.
    Meanwhile, Canada’s national conversation is dominated by how to gain a larger market share of incoming international students — important and beneficial, no doubt, but missing a massive dimension of “international education.”