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.

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.

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.

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.