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.

China: Canada’s Strategic Educational Partner

  • China is by far the leading country of origin for international students in Canada. It has kept this position for over a decade – and the gap between China and the countries on the 2nd and 3rd place (South Korea and the United States, respectively) keeps growing.
  • In 2004, Chinese students represented close to a quarter (23%) of the total number of post-secondary (university) international students in Canada [Source: Statistics Canada]. In 2008, Chinese students accounted for 24% of foreign students in Canada, at all levels: secondary, post-secondary, and trades [Source: Citizenship and Immigration Canada].

English: International Students

  • International students generated more that CDN$5.5 Billion to the Canadian economy in 2008. “Nearly 40 percent of that revenue came from two countries – China [CDN$1.3 Billion] and South Korea [CDN$846 Million]. As of December 2008 there were 42,154 Chinese and $27,440 South Korean citizens in Canada undertaking a formal education” at all levels [Source: Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, and RKA Inc.].
  • While the proportion of Chinese students (at all levels) remained stable between 2004 and 2008, at about 24% of Canada’s entire international student population, the proportion of students from other Asian countries (e.g., South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong) decreased. The only exception is India, a country that only accounts however for about 4% of international students in Canada – significantly below its demographic potential [Source: Citizenship and Immigration Canada].
  • A comparison of international education services with other top exports from Canada reveals that, as of 2008, education services ranked no. 1 in Canada’s exports to China, at CDN$1.3 Billion. It is followed by exports in goods such as acrylic alcohols ($869M), chemical wood pulp ($858M), rape/colza seeds ($782M), unwrought nickel ($704M), etc. Educational services “contribute substantially to Canada’s total export to countries such as the People’s Republic of China, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia” [Source: Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, and RKA Inc.].
  • The share of Asian students in Canada reached 53% of international students in 2008. Students from Europe accounted for 18% (downward trend from the late 1990s), while students from Africa accounted for 12% (downward trend as well). Most international students study in three Canadian provinces: Ontario (34%), Quebec (26%), and British Columbia (19%) [Source: Statistics Canada].
  • An analysis by China Daily indicates that, given the global economic and financial crisis, “more Chinese students are expected to head overseas because of the pressure to find work and the appreciation of the Chinese currency” [Source: Tan Yingzi, China Daily]. An assessment by University Affairs points out that “leading Canadian universities are now well-placed to fill gaps in the international market caused by the international fiscal crisis” [Source: Leon Trakman, University Affairs].
  • From K-12 to the post-graduate level, online and in a typical class-teacher setting, from the Pacific to the Atlantic coast, Canada presents a tremendous potential to attract thousands of students from all corners of the world. China is and will continue to be, for the foreseeable future, a strategic partner in the educational field. Canada needs to invest energy and resources in attracting similarly large numbers of international students from other Asian nations, and from around the globe.