A Win-Win Situation: Post-Secondary Education as one of Canada’s Key Immigration Mechanisms

I recently reviewed three policy documents – one from earlier this year, the other two from 2011 – looking for existing and potential linkages between immigration and post-secondary education in Canada. More specifically, to what extent can international students use their studies in Canada as a vehicle for becoming permanent residents and, later, citizens of this country.

I expected that there must be some evidence linking these phenomena – on the one hand, the desire to emigrate to Canada and identify best mechanisms to achieve this goal and, on the other hand, the existence of a variety of post-secondary programs that can be accessed by international students. What I did not anticipate was to discover how widespread is the idea of encouraging international students to study in Canada specifically for the purpose of making them citizens of this country.

International students

International students (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(i) British Columbia’s (BC) International Education Strategy (2012) indicates that the province’s “emerging labour market challenges [i.e., not enough people entering the labour market] make international education even more important, as we anticipate significant shortages of skilled workers in certain fields.” The BC strategy points out that the engine of the province’s jobs plan and the economy is people – out of an estimated 1 million job openings over the next decade, immigrants are expected to fill a third of these positions.

British Columbia makes it crystal clear that, in order to “gain the greatest possible benefits from international education, we must make it easier for international students to move into careers in BC and take advantage of residency options after graduation. These improvements must in turn be communicated to potential international students.” To create “smoother transitions” for international students who wish to remain in the province after graduation, the BC Government plans to work closely with private sector employers, business associations, settlement organizations and – very importantly – the federal Government to help these students gain work experience and meet the requirements for Canadian residency.

(ii) The second document reviewed is An International Education Marketing Action Plan for [Canada’s] Provinces and Territories (2011) that makes virtually the same point. Even more significantly, this document is written and signed by provincial and territorial Ministers of education and of immigration – a very important group to push such an action plan. They indicated that one of the key expected outcomes of an international education plan for Canada is “a greater number of international students choosing to remain in Canada as permanent residents after graduation.”

The provincial and territorial Ministers plan to work alongside the federal Government to “ensure that annual immigration-level plans allow room for students who wish to remain permanently in Canada” and to “expand opportunities for international students to work off-campus and after graduation.” This document refers as well, just like the BC strategy, to Canada’s demographic pressures and the need to fill job vacancies – this time at a national level – through immigration. The plan focuses on improvements to foreign-qualifications recognition, extending post-graduation work permits and simplifying the process of obtaining visas and residency papers.

(iii) Finally, the report International Education: A Key Driver of Canada’s Future Prosperity (2011), prepared by a national Advisory Panel on Canada’s [future] International Education Strategy, is equally direct: Canada’s “specific goal is to double the number of quality international students within 10 years, from 239,000 today [at all levels], with a focus on attracting top talent who will either decide to make Canada their home or return to their home countries as leaders of the future.” To assist with this approach, the Panel suggested, Canada will need to further increase the amount of graduate and post-doctoral scholarships supporting international students.

The provincial and territorial ministers’ action plan (referenced above) highlighted that more than 71% of all foreign students in Canada (2008 figures) were studying at the post-secondary level or training in the trades, and 45% of international students at the post-secondary level originated from Asia. The distribution of international students in Canada by country of origin reveals that most of them originate from China (23%, 2010 figures), the United States, France, India and Mexico.  Other countries of origin include: South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Saudi Arabia.

Overall, these policy documents point out to a strong desire on the part of Canadian private corporations, educational institutions and public authorities to address demographic challenges and labour market shortages through a determined effort to attract international students to Canada. This is definitely a win-win situation: Canada benefits from an influx of qualified and talented individuals, while the latter can pursue their careers and life goals in a very desirable corner of the earth.

Education as a Driver of Regional Integration: Not in North America

“Education should be the foundation of a North American community,” US academic Robert Pastor argues in his book “The North American Idea” (2011). This is a proposition that he presents in several of his publications: acknowledging that North America is still a loosely structured construct, the educational sector would present the potential of bringing together citizens and institutions from Canada, the United States and Mexico.

Robert Pastor is modelling his plan on the role placed on education in a different regional context – the European Union (EU). In a previous book, “Toward a North American Community” (2001), he pointed out – without providing supporting evidence – that “the consensus among analysts is that the funds [for regional assistance in the EU] were most effectively employed in projects aimed at infrastructure and higher-level education.”

Cover of "Toward a North American Communi...

Cover via Amazon

North America could presumably learn from EU realities and replicate on this continent some of Europe’s policies and programs in the area of education. Pastor looks at education – along with other areas of international cooperation – and notices both a disappointing reality in terms of limited levels of student exchanges and the concrete potential for improving this situation. If the latter would happen, it might equally lead to spillover effects and closer regional integration in other sectors – from politics to energy to border issues.

In “The North American Idea,” the US academic notes that Canada ranks only fifth and Mexico seventh “in sending students to the United States – much fewer than from China, India, Taiwan, and South Korea. About one thousand Mexicans study in Canada, and Americans study much less at universities in their two neighbors than in Europe or Asia.” Proximity doesn’t equal curiosity, he concludes in a somewhat disappointed tone.

Critical voices call Robert Pastor the “father of the North American Union” (for observers unfamiliar with the discourse around regional integration, the label “North American Union” carries with it negative connotations, particularly in conservative political circles. Pastor himself prefers the term “community”). He was and largely remains one of the strongest proponents of closer ties, across a variety of sectors (including education), between Canada, the United States and Mexico.

This being the case, it is only natural for him to recommend that the three governments “promote exchanges, research, and studies on North America,” support three-way collaboration between post-secondary institutions, establish “language immersion” programs, streamline standards on credit transfers and professional credentials, and increase their efforts in promoting North American ideals.

These are all excellent ideas and Robert Pastor should be commended for his efforts in promoting a more deeply and broadly integrated higher education sector on this continent. His proposals however face tremendous challenges, mostly of a structural nature. I will just list here three of them and elaborate more in future blog posts:

(i) North America is *not* the European Union. Any student of European history and politics will tell you this. The underlying conditions that contributed to the creation of the EU do not exist in North America. The EU itself may be more of a fluke than a model for other regional entities. Trying to replicate EU approaches elsewhere is an unfeasible scheme. Moreover, European integration is largely stalled – European themselves question the value of some of the existing multi-level arrangements.

(ii) The differences between Canada, the United States and Mexico – looking at political and socio-economic indicators – are so large and so diverse that across-the-board integration between them is virtually impossible for the foreseeable future. The US remains the world’s sole superpower and Mexico suffers from very significant social, economic and law-enforcement crises – all of them strong reasons for Canada to be cautious in promoting further integration with its neighbours.  Simply put, there is no will at a federal level to spend political capital and resources to advance deeper regional cooperation. Furthermore, education is not the most exciting sector to focus on, for both politicians and the citizens.

(iii) Finally, all three countries are federal political systems and education is largely a sub-national (state/province) responsibility. Even if they wanted, in most cases the federal governments would not be able to influence significantly patterns of cooperation between private organizations and professional associations across the continent.

Robert Pastor is right when he points out that education should be the foundation of building a meaningful regional entity. Yet “should” is the key word here – it denotes a normative position more than a realistic suggestion. If North America were to follow the evolution of the European Union (an unlikely course of events), the place to start may need to be sought elsewhere.

Integrating Education in Canada’s Foreign Policy on Asia

Canada has not yet developed a comprehensive strategy towards Asia-Pacific. It may need to develop one in the current context, in which Asia’s influence and economic and political clout continue to rise.

Canada’s International Policy Statement (IPS, 2005) was an attempt to provide an integrated framework for relations with various regions of the world, but it suffered from a lack of implementation mechanisms and an over-emphasis on security issues in shaping the country’s global priorities and positions.

The IPS was the first document of its kind to try to integrate all the state’s major international tools. Inspired by the idea of a more active Canada on the international stage – a country that has to reposition itself in relation to a new global environment – the document articulated Canada’s priorities in four key areas of interest: defence, diplomacy, development, and commerce. References to education (e.g., attracting international students for study in Canada) were few and far between.

The IPS was designed as a novel lens offering enhanced reflections of a changing world in which Canada reinvents itself, and as a platform for further conceptualization of government positions on international affairs. It focused on (i) a more dynamic diplomacy and the rethinking of relations with emerging world powers, including China and India; (ii) a stronger emphasis on development cooperation and a clearer set of criteria for providing bilateral aid; (iii) the reconfiguration of Canada’s priorities in the area of commerce; and (iv) the overhaul of the country’s security and defence priorities. Specialized but promising areas of cooperation – services such as education, tourism, finance, etc. – were largely left out of this framework.

As a blueprint for action in the international realm, the IPS was a useful addition to Canada’s policy toolbox, received positively by practitioners and scholars alike. The defeat of Paul Martin’s Liberal Government in 2006 would, nonetheless, minimize the impact of this document within official circles. The Conservatives’ Canada First outline replaced the IPS as the key security and defence blueprint, but no corresponding policy instruments have been proposed in the areas of trade, diplomacy and development – or an overarching framework bringing together more specialized areas of international cooperation.

The media reported in late 2011 that Canada is crafting a new, comprehensive foreign policy strategy. This would be a welcome development, allowing the country to establish a whole-of-government roadmap for international engagement, which would also provide the conditions for close coordination of federal initiatives with those of other stakeholders (provincial, territorial and municipal governments, educational institutions, NGOs, etc.)

Canada may be able to not only realign and streamline its foreign priorities, but to also identify areas of cooperation and coordination with its main trading partner and ally – the United States – in relation to Asia-Pacific. Canada must consider in the context of a foreign policy review the fact that the United States considers this region as crucial to its own future. In this context, it is preferable to streamline initiatives than to compete directly with US actors in a new world market, whenever possible.

Clinton speaks on Asia Pacific policy

Clinton speaks on Asia Pacific policy (Photo credit: East-West Center)

Many analysts, in both Canada and the United States, perceive a need to develop relations with Asia starting with a solid economic foundation, which will shape the nature of those relations and prioritize the two countries’ specific interests in the Asia-Pacific region. A Canadian strategy toward deepening relations with Asia should be, in Wendy Dobson’s view, “multifaceted, with regional, bilateral and security […] dimensions. It should include a new commitment to Asia’s evolving and increasingly significant institutional architecture” [International Journal, Autumn 2009].

Dobson’s analysis indicates however that Canadians “don’t give any signal of Asia as an enduring focus of our foreign policy,” while Jack Austin points out that Canadians “are not negative about Asia, they’re just not aware of their own self interest in terms of what’s going on” in the region [International Journal, Autumn 2009]. To change this state of affairs and effectively promote Canadian interests across the globe, but particularly in Asia, a new impetus is needed to engage Asia-Pacific countries forcefully.

This could be accomplished through a new Asia-Pacific strategy and the identification of well suited implementation mechanisms. This strategy should concentrate not just on high-level objectives, but also on the promotion of specific Canadian interests, in those sectors in which Canada holds a competitive advantage. Considering the importance of developing and deepening trade relations with Asian partners, Canada needs to give special attention to establishing and developing linkages in key areas such as education, financial services, tourism, and the knowledge-based economy.

A new international policy framework or a set of coordinated policy positions would provide an integrated roadmap to engaging various regions around the world, particularly Asia-Pacific. Given the rising importance of this region in global affairs, a foreign policy review that would elevate its position in Canada’s list of international priorities would provide coherence to current ad hoc efforts to strengthen Canada-Asia relations.

An Asian strategy should establish the principles for engagement, while being implemented through flexible mechanisms that would allow for sector/country re-prioritization in light of changing developments occurring across the region. A nationally coordinated strategy would also allow Canadian stakeholders to realize “economies of scale” in their overseas promotion and investment efforts and, consequently, to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of their initiatives in an environment of financial restraint.  Education is, from all these perspectives, a great place to start.

Canada-Asia Relations: Strengthening Education Linkages

English: Member nations of the Asia-Pacific Ec...

Observers of Asia-Pacific have frequently noted in recent years the rise of the region in world affairs. Asia-Pacific “has become a key driver of global politics,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointed out in 2011, highlighting the region’s demographic weight, economic and political significance, contribution to climate change, and emerging military power. [1] Asia has the world’s third largest economy (China), a majority of the top ten largest cities, and a growing consumer base.

Trade and investment levels between Canada and Asia have increased significantly in recent years, particularly between Canada’s Western provinces and China. As Prime Minister Stephen Harper noted during his 2012 trip to Beijing, China is now Canada’s second largest trading partner. Moreover, as Paul Evans noted, “Canada and China are not just linked by trade in finished goods but by global supply chains and manufacturing […] China is not only engaged in the international system, but also altering it in fundamental ways.” [2] These linkages are expected to continue and become even more substantial in the next few decades, a development that requires the consolidation and refining of strategies towards the Asia-Pacific region.

It is estimated that “[o]ver the next two decades, Asia will undergo massive urbanization,” opening significant economic opportunities for its international partners. [3] Maureen Appel Molot points out that countries such as China and India “are not just producers, their populations are also consumers and potential customers: as income levels rise, so will the consumption of a range of raw material, agricultural and consumer goods” [4], as well as services, including international education.

This will create economic opportunities for developed Western countries and will increase international competition in the area of education, as citizens of key Asian nations (China, India, Japan and others) will increasingly seek to study abroad and participate in various education programs beyond their home countries’ borders. Recent data indicate that a vast majority of Chinese university students have considered studying abroad (as many as 80 per cent!) [5] and – in 2008 alone – “some 180,000 postsecondary students left China to study at a college or university in another country” [6].

It is necessary for Canada to identify all key mechanisms through which it can compete with other nations in the education sector, and to pursue its interests vigorously. Applied to a regional context such as Asia-Pacific, this means that Canada has to be strategic in engaging with governments, education institutions, and other non-governmental entities, and to actively and forcefully promote the benefits of higher education in Canada.

Yuen Pau Woo sees in this context an opportunity to advance human capital cooperation [7], while Dominic Barton considers Canada’s education system a potentially major export industry [8]. Likewise, Rana Sarkar considers education a “gateway” to Canada’s growing economic relations with Asia [9]. The education sector – mentioned more frequently in the academic literature and media articles in recent years – is an excellent candidate for closer ties between Canada and Asian countries.

This is due to its largely non-controversial nature and the mutual benefits of allowing young people from the Asia-Pacific region to study in Canada and of increasing the proportion of tuition-paying international students in Canadian academic institutions. As of 2008-2009, more than half of international students in Canada (about 88,000) came from Asia.

Investing in a more coordinated and targeted strategy to attract Asian students and increasing their numbers in Canadian colleges and universities makes a lot of sense, and not just from an economic point of view. These students will end up strengthening Canadian ties to their countries of origin and some will decide to stay here and become proud citizens of this country.

After all, Canada is a successfully multicultural society, with a high quality of life and a first-rate education system that is competitively priced internationally. It now needs to raise its profile as a preferred destination for international education, and to better explain to potential applicants why it is, in many respects, a better choice than the United States, the UK, Australia or New Zealand. (More on the Canadian advantage in future posts).


[1] Hillary Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century,” Foreign Policy, Nov. 2011.

[2] Paul Evans, “Responding to Global China: Getting the Balance Right,” Canadian Foreign Policy Journal, vol. 14, issue 2 (2008).

[3] Wendy Dobson, “Canada, China, and Rising Asia: A Strategic Proposal,” sponsored by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives and the Canada China Business Council, Oct. 2011.

[4] Maureen Appel Molot, “Canada and the BRIC States,” Canadian Foreign Policy Journal, vol. 13, issue 2 (2006).

[5] Tan Yingzi, “Overseas universities woo Chinese students,” China Daily, May 21, 2009.

[6] Philip Fine, Foreign students satisfied with programs in Canada,” University Affairs, Dec. 7, 2009.

[7] Yuen Pau Woo, “A Leap-Frog Strategy for Relations with Asia,” in Canada 2020: Rising to Meet the Asia Challenge, Nov. 2011, http://canada2020.ca/

[8] Dominic Barton, “Rising to Meet the Asia Challenge and Opportunity,” in Canada 2020, ibid.

[9] Rana Sarkar, “The Big Challenge: Adjusting to the Asia Century,” in Canada 2020, ibid.