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Speculative Diction

The national path to internationalization


This week it’s back to Big Post-secondary Reports, and I’m going to take a look at an issue that’s been looming ever-larger on the Canadian PSE horizon this year: Canada’s position in the international education “market”, and the ways in which this is being developed and expanded actively with government support.

On July 27th, a report was released focusing on the overall economic impact of international students in Canada. International Trade Minister Ed Fast then asked for the report’s conclusions to be incorporated into the results put forward by the $10-million Advisory Panel on Canada’s International Education Strategy (led by Amit Chakma, of Western University). On August 14th those results arrived in another report, “Education, a Key Driver of Canada’s Future Prosperity”, which also placed much emphasis on the economic gains brought by international students to Canada.

Another related development, less discussed, is that at the end of July Minister Jason Kenney announced a new policy initiative that will be designed to “crack down” on exploitation in international education (“visa fraud”), through issuing student visas only on the condition that individuals enroll in and pursue studies at an approved institution and compliance will be monitored”. The arguments being made here can work in two ways: on the one hand, the government can claim to be protecting international students from fraud committed by organizations that aim to make a profit from them. On the other hand, they can claim that the policy protects Canadians from being exploited by those students abusing policy “loopholes” (if such loopholes actually exist).

It seems, from the news coverage, that there’s nothing other than than anecdotal evidence (i.e. no actual research or statistics) to support such a policy in the first place. However, according to Kenney “the proposed changes would address the protection of students’ rights and the image of Canadian schools abroad” (my emphasis).

It’s interesting to see these interventions being planned at the federal level–but it makes perfect sense in (economic) context. Immigration policy, for example, has a relationship to post-secondary education through the government’s agenda to develop or obtain as much “human capital” (i.e., educated/skilled people) as possible and keep it within national borders. There have been a number of policy changes made over the past five years or so that contribute to this goal. International students also have positive effects on the local economies of cities and towns, and of course on tuition revenue for universities.

Importantly, in both the case of a proposed international education strategy and that of Kenney’s immigration announcement, the issue involved is the regulation, coordination, and communication required for Canada to win its rightful place in the “global talent market” (note the language of the “creative class” theory coming in here). The panel’s report argues that Canada must develop a cohesive strategy for marketing and recruitment of non-Canadian students–and Kenney’s announcement suggests some of the policy tools that may be used to regulate them once they arrive. Students, like other imports, are a resource that must be governed; and Canada, in turn, is a product to be marketed to them.

Canada is being positioned as a potential “loser” in this global contest for human capital, while other countries have been “getting ahead” already with slick branding and appropriate policy change. For this reason, Canada’s government is looking to the U.S. and to the U.K., and then to other countries with more marketized education environments, including Australia and New Zealand. Not only Europe, the U.S., and Australasia are recruiting; countries like China are now setting ambitious targets as well. All these countries have been able to “respond” more easily to competition because they have national ministries or departments of education that can coordinate such a strategy. But Canada “lags” in part because of its lack of federal oversight and cohesion; this is where the call for coordination comes in.

It’s just as interesting to look at the framing in the report (including its repeated use of the word “bold”), rather than its actual recommendations. Alex Usher writes that the report contains contradictory assumptions about the purpose, and thus the method, of international recruitment. One the one hand, using international education as a funding source for universities means (potentially) lowering academic standards. On the other hand, trying to attract the “best” students means investing more in scholarships and other attractions.

A specific recommendation is that Canada should increase its numbers of international students “from about 239,130 to 450,000 in 10 years–from kindergarten through Grade 12 and post-secondary institutions–without taking away seats from Canadians” (Globe & Mail). But Paul Wells argues that even these numbers are not particularly ambitious: “The panel’s recommendations are bold only in comparison with a policy of doing nothing. […] Chakma wants to double the number of international students in Canadian universities [over 10 years]; that represents an annual growth rate of 7%, which is lower than the rate of growth over each of the last two years.”

While it’s difficult as of yet to draw any solid conclusions about the final details of implementation, one thing’s for sure: in spite of the non-economic arguments also put forward, the overall focus is on Canada as a national (education) brand, one that is now competing against others in an international market. What effects this might have on PSE institutions, and whether the brand will hold up under the scrutiny of “student-consumers”, remain to be seen.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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