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Margin Notes

A few doubts on internationalization

Canada wants to double the number of foreign students, but much needs to be done before this can happen.


In its 2011 budget, the federal government announced funding for the development of a new Canadian international education strategy, and in October of that same year it named an expert panel led by Western University President Amit Chakma “to provide guidance and direction” for the development of such a strategy. The expert panel released its report this past August, and it can fairly be described as a whole-hearted endorsement of the need to increase the number of international students at Canadian campuses (among other recommendations, including increasing the opportunities for Canadian students to study abroad).

The advisory panel’s vision for Canada is to “become the 21st-century leader in international education.” Specifically, the panel recommends doubling the number of “quality international students” coming to Canada within 10 years (from the current number of 239,000 today, of which about 100,000 are enrolled at Canada’s universities).

The panel lists the many benefits of internationalization that have been cited frequently over the years by university leaders: international students bring an “international dimension” to campus activities and give other students a “global perspective.” Moreover, if international students choose to remain in Canada after their studies, notes the report, they constitute “a desirable source of qualified immigrants who are capable of integrating well into Canadian economy and society.” Even if they don’t stay, international students who return to their home country “become allies with Canada by fostering successful commercial and political relations, given their understanding of Canadian values and society.”

There is also a financial dimension: a 2011 report commissioned by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade indicated that in 2010, international students in Canada spent in excess of $7.7 billion on tuition, accommodation and discretionary spending.

Doubling the number of foreign students to Canada, however, will have its challenges. Two separate Canadian higher education consultants recently outlined some of the issues.

Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, in a recent blog post, opined that Canada is not ready – “not by a long shot” – to double international student recruitment. For regional universities, Mr. Usher explains, going after more foreign students is a no-brainer: they have the spare capacity, and the money they earn from international students is a net gain. But, for big research-intensive universities in the large population centres, there’s a different calculation. His conclusion: these latter universities, which are the ones most foreign students wish to attend, have no financial incentive to accept them. “Any plan to double enrolment that doesn’t address that simple issue isn’t going to work,” he says.

In a follow-up post, Mr. Usher points to another “pervasive mismatch”: the one between program demand and program capacity. In a nutshell, he says that the programs that international students are most interested in, like business, science and engineering, are not the ones the universities would most like them to take, such as those within the humanities and social sciences. That’s because universities have more capacity to offer the latter programs, which also are cheaper to deliver, than they do the former high-demand, high-cost programs.

Some universities, says Mr. Usher, are trying to shift the demand of international students, but such a strategy is doomed to fail: “Success in international education depends on meeting and satisfying demand, not on trying to divert it into areas to suit our own preferences.”

A related article in Times Higher Education reports on a presentation by Rod Skinkle, chief executive of Academica Group, at the OECD’s Institutional Management in Higher Education General Conference held in Paris in September. Based on a survey of senior institutional administrative staff in Canada, Mr. Skinkle reported that nearly three-quarters of respondents say that their institutions plan to increase international student numbers. However, almost half expressed concern with their institution’s ability to maintain on-campus social and community integration, and a third foresaw challenges ahead in understanding and providing for students’ cultural and religious needs.

Mr. Skinkle added that although respondents predicted positive effects from increased international student enrolments, such as more income, there was little evidence to prove it. The inability to keep pace with student service levels meant that the real costs and therefore the benefits to institutions were unknown, says the article. “If we don’t know what the costs are and we’re not measuring the impact and outcomes, it’s … possible for [students] to have a negative experience and this to have a negative outcome for the institution and its reputation,” Mr. Skinkle cautioned.

We don’t often read about some of the negative implications to the institutions themselves of trying to recruit more international students, so these pieces provide food for thought.

Update, Oct. 3, 9:00 a.m.: Alex Usher added a third instalment this morning to his “straight thinking on international educaton” series of blogs.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Paul Brant / October 6, 2012 at 00:04

    I am confused by the argument here – because the key theme seems to be that there is no incentive to recruit and enroll international students. Really? I thought that the key incentives were the high international student tuition fees (for undergraduate students) and prestige (for graduate students). Isn’t that why we currently have over 200,000 international students in Canada? Isn’t that why the advisory panel recommends a huge investment in new scholarship programs to attract the best international graduate students? If I understand the strategy document, the objective is simply to maintain Canada’s market share, based on the assumption that the total market will double. Why not interview Dr. Chakma on the recommendations of his committee rather than focus on a views of a private consultant? I thought that the advisory report addressed the exact issues raised by Skinkle.

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