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Margin Notes

Canada’s international education strategy: progressing, but still a muddle


The Canadian Bureau for International Education released its annual report last Friday on the state of international education in Canada, entitled A World of Learning: Canada’s Performance and Potential in International Education. At first glance, Canada seems to be making the right moves in terms of attracting international students: according to the report, in 2013 there were nearly 300,000 international students in Canada, at all levels of study, an 84 percent increase over the last decade and an 11 percent increase over the previous year. This makes Canada the seventh most popular destination country for “internationally mobile” students.

In undergraduate and graduate programs, there are about 160,000 international students enrolled in Canada. They comprise approximately eight percent of undergraduate university enrolment and 16 percent of graduate-level enrolment.

Those are decent numbers. However, there seems to be a disconnect or lack of coherence between what we want from these students, what they want from Canada and what we’re delivering to them. It’s a muddle that we need to reflect on if everyone is to benefit from increased numbers of foreign students in higher education.

The federal government, for its part, seems pretty clear in its goals. In its International Education Strategy unveiled at the beginning of this year, it called for Canada to roughly double the number of international students, from around 240,000 in 2011 (according to federal government estimates) to more than 450,000 by 2022. The government emphasized what this would mean to Canada economically: it will “create new jobs,” “address skills and labour shortages” and “provide an annual boost to the Canadian economy of almost $10 billion; and generate approximately $910 million in new tax revenues.”

I responded at the time that perhaps we need a bit more nuance in our strategy, emphasizing the non-economic benefits to Canada as well – the cultural benefits, the increase in openness and tolerance, the personal connections created, etc.

But what do the international students themselves want? Here, the CBIE report, which contains the survey results of just over 3,000 international students, is quite interesting. It found that fully half of all respondents indicated their intention to apply for permanent resident status in Canada in the future. Students from Sub-Saharan Africa were most likely to be interested in pursuing permanent migration to Canada (71 percent), followed by students from South Asia (66 percent) and the Middle East/North Africa (55 percent). Presumably a wish to better their economic prospects, relative to what exist in their home countries, is fueling their intentions. This is a valid human desire, but what impact might this have on the countries they leave behind?

Universities, for their part, welcome the additional revenue that international students bring in but they too stress the positive benefits of an “internationalized” campus. They point out that foreign students who return to their home countries often become “ambassadors” for Canada due to their positive experiences studying here, a point CBIE president Karen McBride makes in the report. Ms. McBride stresses that is important to consider not only how Canada’s internationalization strategy contributes to economic competitiveness, but “how it can serve as a platform for addressing a wide range of Canada’s foreign policy objectives, including … strengthening people-to-people linkages that will carry our relationships forward in all domains.”

Yet, when it comes to creating “linkages,” again we need to be circumspect. According to the CBIE survey, just over one-third of international students in Canada said they find it difficult to get to know Canadian students. Furthermore, a disappointing 56 percent of students reported that they do not count Canadian students among their friends in Canada, and one in every two students finds it difficult to meet Canadians outside of their university/college context. “When international students and their Canadian counterparts do not fully benefit from each other’s presence through meaningful social interaction,” says the report, “everyone loses.”

On the other hand, most foreign students say they’re satisfied with their decision to study in Canada.

Finally, there is also the reality that the flow of international students continues to be mainly in one direction: only three percent of Canadian students are seeking an international educational experience abroad, the report notes – one of the lowest percentages among OECD countries. And, of those Canadians who do study abroad, 75 percent are in a country whose main language of instruction is English. Ms. McBride says this is “proving to be the Achilles’ heel in Canada’s aspirations for greater global engagement and competitiveness.”

The CBIE report did not look at reasons why Canadians are disinclined to study abroad. Many young Canadians do travel after graduation, and perhaps they see this as sufficient worldly experience (even though a structured educational experience would likely be a much richer and more immersive learning opportunity). The Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance suggests potential barriers to study abroad may include affordability, a lack of awareness of the benefits, and interrupting their studies.

In 2012, the Advisory Panel on Canada’s International Education Strategy recommended that, by 2022, there should be 50,000 awards offered to Canadian students each year to study abroad. But the government so far has not acted on that recommendation. Individual institutions and organizations offer some funding, but it is piecemeal. For example, outgoing University of Alberta president Indira Samarasekera recently announced she is personally donating $250,000 to create a “global student leadership fund” to help Alberta students study abroad. “Nothing better prepares a student to be a global citizen, and unlocks their potential to change the world, than an international experience,” she said.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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