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.

Higher Education in North America: In the Regional Village, All Education is Local

I recently reviewed three books on North American affairs, two on Canada-US, the other one on Canada-Mexico relations:

  • “Doing the Continental: A New North American Relationship” (Toronto, ON: Dundurn Press, 2010) was written by David Dyment, an Ottawa-based academic, with a foreword by Bob Rae, currently interim leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
  • “Big Picture Realities: Canada and Mexico at the Crossroads” (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2008) is edited by Daniel Drache, a specialist in global trade governance and North American integration, who brought together for this book a set of leading experts on Canada and Mexico.
  • “Uncle Sam and Us: Globalization, Neoconservatism, and the Canadian State” (Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2002) was written by Stephen Clarkson, one of Canada’s pre-eminent political scientists.
Stars representing the 3 North American countr...

Stars representing the 3 North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Part of this review was to assess these authors’ views on the concept of “North American education.” Perhaps not surprisingly – while there are many calls for an integrated approach to education amongst Canadian provinces and Mexican and US states – the reality is that such a system does not exist. Each sub-federal jurisdiction creates its own rules and regulations related to formal education, which are not always aligned with those in other provinces and states, even as part of the same country.

In the Introduction to “Big Picture Realities,” Daniel Drache argues that “leading, pace-setting institutions such as the labour market, education, and health systems are being required to change and adapt to the new power dynamics” in North America. He also makes a case that “these forceful expressions of national interest and domestic priorities have reappeared as the new authoritative agenda-setting priorities for all three signatories” of NAFTA (Canada, the United States, and Mexico). The articles in Drache’s book do not substantiate however the assertion that education is one of those leading, agenda-setting sectors for the North American nations, contributing to closer alignment of continental processes.

A 2007 Strategic Council poll indicates that education is not one of the most important concerns for Canadians (health care and the environment are) and provides further evidence that it is not a key area of international collaboration either. Similarly, education (post-secondary, at least) doesn’t seem to be high on the list of national priorities of the peoples of Mexico and the United States. Tri-lateral discussions, such as those at the North American leaders’ Cancun summit in 2006, referred to education in passing, touching on joint research and specific teaching initiatives, at a high level. Duncan Wood (“Big Picture Realities”) points out that education is one of those sectors that “would benefit from a less macro, and more area-specific, approach.” While acknowledging that harmonization of educational systems is an unrealistic proposition in the foreseeable future, he recommends concrete collaboration initiatives between Canadian provinces and US and Mexican states, universities and colleges, and professional organizations in this area.

Stephen Clarkson highlights the distinction, in the Canadian system, between education and research. While the former falls entirely within the provinces’ authority, responsibility for research is shared between the provinces and the federal government. Authorities at the federal level have “paid attention to promoting science and technology since the Dominion’s early days” but “[have] long had an ambivalent attitude to [the promotion of education].” Unlike the United States (with its US Department of Education) or Mexico (with its Secretariat of Public Education), Canada doesn’t have a federal department regulating educational policies and programs. This contributes to a situation in which establishing and consolidating education-related initiatives in North America is a very challenging endeavour.

In any case, David Dyment makes a strong and compelling case that “continentalism is a force of nature that we have to be wary of and tame for our national [Canadian] interests.” In other words, while many sectors (including education) may present the potential for closer collaboration and deeper integration between Canada and its North American neighbours, Canada should only pursue such as line of action when it serves its strategic objectives, not for integration’s sake. The author also points out that “by placing Mexico centrally in our relations with the US, we are not achieving the benefits of multilateralism.”

These positions are consistent with the evolutions of Canada-US and Canada-Mexico relations in recent decades, including interactions and initiatives in the area of education. While still distinct from their US counterparts, Canadian higher education structures, processes, and standards are similar with those south of the border. At the same time, differences are significant between Canada/US and post-secondary realities in Mexico. Overall, just like politics, all education is “local” in North America – understanding realities in this area means understanding national, regional, and community-level contexts.

Students and parents in search of a university for undergraduate or graduate studies should study carefully all the factors involved in a decision, as contexts vary widely from country to country and from city to city. They can also consider working with experienced educational consultants, who can guide them through the maze of considerations and decisions, particularly when they explore different options in different parts of the continent.