The Benefits of an International Education Strategy for Canada

Canada is increasingly interested lately in attracting international students and in promoting the many advantages of a Canadian post-secondary education. A recent news story indicates that Canada’s federal government is developing a new international education strategy for the country.

The Globe and Mail argues that “international students represent an economic bonanza worth tens of billions of dollars to countries like the United States, Britain and Australia. They were the first countries to really take advantage of this market. Canada, although late to the party, has made up significant ground in a short period of time.” The author (Gary Mason) points out that Canada will face stiff competition in attracting international students not just from other Western countries, but also from new emerging economies such as China and India.

Some of the figures provided in Gary Mason’s piece are definitely worth pondering about: in 2011, India increased higher education spending by 30 per cent; China aims to enroll half a million students in post-secondary programs by 2020, twice the current number; Brazil will spend two billion dollars over the next four years to allow its students to attend exchange programs in other countries.

In a related development, no fewer than sixteen Canadian universities will send representatives to a professional event in Beijing, called PhD Workshop China (November 24-25, 2012). They will present their graduate programs and recruit top Chinese students to study in Canada. Nine other countries will send representatives as well (Australia, Denmark, Fiji, France, Germany, Singapore, The Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States). Canada will have the second largest institutional representation – after Germany, which will be present with 26 universities.

According to the organizers, the event “provides leading overseas graduate schools a focused opportunity to meet top graduates from the most important colleges and universities across China.” PhD Workshop China 2011 attracted 160 delegates from 85 universities across the globe, including Canada. Last year, about 1,300 pre-registered students from 29 provinces throughout China attended meetings and interviews with overseas delegates, professors and admission officers.

74 per cent of these students were Master’s level students, while 14 per cent were doctoral candidates. The top 10 areas of PhD study were:  Materials Science; Chemistry/ Chemical Engineering; Life Sciences; Accounting/ Banking/ Economics/ Finance; Biology/ Biotechnology; Computer Science and Technology; Geosciences/ Earth Science; Law and Legal Studies; Electronics and Automatic Control; and Linguistics/ Languages/ Interpretation.

Yet this is just one of the venues used by Canadian universities from coast to coast to attract international students, particularly from China. Equally, Chinese universities are engaging their Canadian counterparts, encouraging students here to enroll in exchange programs in China. Led by Peking University, one of the most prestigious Chinese higher education institutions, a group of top 14 universities from China came to Ottawa’s Carleton University, in May 2012, to provide first-hand information on Chinese institutions and their programs.

“Studying abroad undoubtedly broadens students’ life horizons, and contributes to one’s personal, intellectual, and career growth. The mobility of students has also become one of the most important impetuses for countries’ social and economic growth,” Carleton University noted. A federally-led international education strategy for Canada would bring all these disparate initiatives together and would advance Canadian interests in the area of education in a more effective and integrated fashion.

Mind the Gap: Quebec’s Post-Secondary Education Woes

As this post is written while Quebec students’ “strikes” are still occurring – disrupting not only regular education processes but also the province’s already tumultuous political life – I may be tempted to weigh in and provide my views on the protest itself. I won’t and I will not address here issues of morality, social justice, agency, the role of universities (and CEGEPs) in society, taxation and representation. There are countless voices out there, at this moment, doing precisely that – from the militant student group CLASSE to Globe and Mail and National Post editorialists.

The trigger for this sudden interest in Quebec’s higher education is Quebec Premier Jean Charest’s decision to raise tuition fees over the next five years by about 75 per cent. The reaction from a sizable section of the provincial student population has been swift and, in some cases, violent – student “strikes” led to courses being cancelled, institutions being shut down, hundreds of arrests and confrontations with police, for the past three months. Except for op-ed pieces in national newspapers and brief TV reports, the reaction has been muted in ROC (the rest of Canada).

What I will attempt to provide however are some facts and observations about university tuition in Canada’s overwhelmingly francophone province. This is the main point of contention, which pitted the government against students. Largely frozen for decades, university tuition in Quebec is the lowest in Canada (and, arguably, in the whole of Canada and the United States). While tuition fees vary from university to university and from program to program, as a rough guide they are half what students in the rest of Canada pay for their post-secondary education.

The provincial government (as other governments as well, elsewhere) is heavily subsidizing university studies. For example, currently, tuition can be as low as $2,701 at Université de Sherbrooke and $2,781 at Université Laval in Quebec City, for provincial students. At McGill University in Montreal, one of Canada’s best schools, the tuition fees are $3,727, slightly more than half what students in neighbouring Ontario pay for their studies.

Why this does not lead to a huge influx of students from ROC is unsurprising: the provincial government only subsidizes education at this rate for Quebec residents (and a few other selected categories). Out-of-province students pay higher tuition, similar to (or higher than) what they would pay in their home province – e.g., $6,391 at Sherbrooke, $6,471 at Laval and $7,417 at McGill.

Tuition fees for out-of-country (international) students, everywhere in Canada, are higher than for Canadian students. For arts and science programs in 2011-2012, international student tuition averaged $16,426 at Sherbrooke, $16,728 at Laval and $20,420 at McGill. To put things in context, international student tuition can be as low as $9,006 at Moncton U. (New Brunswick), $9,010 at Memorial U. (Newfoundland) or $11,726 at University of Lethbridge (Alberta).

The tuition fees for Quebec residents haven’t even been indexed for inflation for several decades. Even with the proposed 75% increase, the fees would still be some of the lowest in Canada (an argument that proponents of “free” education may not be willing to entertain). A recent analysis in Maclean’s magazine indicated that “[h]aving been in effect for 32 of the past 43 years, the tuition freeze has been as enduring as it is economical. As a result, students today are getting an even better bargain than their forebears.”

Of course, whenever money is involved, especially when that translates into tuition hikes, changes are bound to lead to political disagreements. As long as the confrontation takes places in the appropriate fora – legislatures, university boards or negotiation committees – healthy debates are beneficial to the overall state of the education system.

Whatever the outcome of the current student protests will be – and one hopes a compromise will be reached soon – this crisis highlights the existence of a different paradigm on access to post-secondary education. Quebec’s multi-layered approach to charging tuition fees if being tested in 2012 and early indications point to developments that will slowly close the gap between the Quebec model and practices in the rest of Canada.

Time will tell if Quebec will maintain a distinct post-secondary system and if the gap in this sector will gradually diminish between “la belle province” and its Canadian counterparts. Either way, the current status quo will likely prove to be unsustainable.

Building Bridges Between British Columbia and Brazil

A very informative piece in The Vancouver Sun (May 3, 2012), signed by Stephen Toope, President of the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Chairman of the Board of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC), and Arvind Gupta, Professor of Computer Science at UBC and Scientific Director for Mitacs, a Canadian research and training network.

They note that Canadian higher education institutions will sign many agreements with Brazilian universities “to advance research collaborations and student exchange,” but “the true bedrock from which these bridges will be built is authentic people-to-people relationships.” The link to the full article can be found here.

How Do You Say “Welcome” in Portuguese? Canada Opens Its Doors to Brazilian Students

Over 30 Canadian university presidents visited Rio de Janeiro in late April 2012, in a “tour de force” meant to strengthen and further advance educational linkages between Canada and Brazil. The fact that the mission took place should come as no surprise – after all, Canada is keenly interested in attracting international students, and Brazil is one of the world’s largest economies, with a relatively low median age. What is worth noticing though is the scope of this initiative, involving Canadian academic institutions from coast to coast, and the fact that the Canadian delegation was led by Governor-General David Johnston, a former university president himself.

What triggered this unprecedented mission – besides Canada’s newly found interest in Latin America – was Brazil’s Science Without Borders program. The program’s objective is to spend $2 billion over the next several years to allow over 100,000 Brazilian students to study at foreign universities, on a temporary basis before returning home to complete their degrees. Canadian universities and government organizations will also contribute millions of dollars in scholarships and student-mobility programs to draw Brazilian students. “We see a huge appetite in Brazil for Canadian education. To my great delight, Canada is the most favoured nation for Brazilians,” the Governor-General said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

While Brazilian students may indeed think highly of Canada’s higher education, not many are currently coming to study here – at least when one compares the number of Brazilian post-secondary students studying in Canada (600-700) with those in the United States (reportedly about 9,000) or elsewhere. This is what this mission is trying to address: the agreements established by the Canadian delegation with their Brazilian counterparts are expected to attract a booming 20,000 additional students in Canada by 2016.

This is not one day too soon: David Johnston pointed out that “Canada has about half as many international students in our classrooms as the global standard.” While Brazilian students will bring additional revenue to Canadian universities in the short term, they will also establish – over time – highly valuable linkages between Canada and one of the world’s emerging economic powerhouses.

At a personal level, the experience of studying in Canada will offer the Brazilian exchange students memories that will last a lifetime. Some may even decide to call this country their new home.