The Need for a National Debate on the Future of Canada’s Post-Secondary Sector

Just several weeks apart, the Province of Ontario and the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies (CAGS) released two formal positions on post-secondary education. The first one is a discussion paper released in late June 2012 and titled “Strengthening Ontario’s Centres of Creativity, Innovation and Knowledge.” The other is a “Pre-Budget Submission Regarding the 2013 Federal Budget” – CAGS, early August 2012. (CAGS is a Canada-wide association bringing together 58 Canadian universities with graduate programs and the country’s three federal research-granting agencies).

Official Flag of Ontario since 1965

Official Flag of Ontario since 1965 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Three themes are common across the two documents and constitute core policy positions: (i) Canadian/Ontario graduates need to be “more immediately employable”; (ii) post-secondary institutions need to be more innovative in their approaches and practices; (iii) Canada’s post-secondary education system has to become more closely aware of, and more actively involved in, student international mobility.

(I) LABOUR-MARKET READINESS: Both organizations, CAGS and the Government of Ontario (Canada’s most populous province), place a great emphasis on the need for tighter linkages between post-secondary institutions and the labour market. CAGS quotes Professor Douglas Peers of York University who argues “it is essential that our [universities] prepare graduate students who are flexible, adaptable, and […] more immediately employable than may have been the case in the past.”

Ontario goes one step further, suggesting that the very future of a competitive post-secondary education system depends on it capacity to produce graduates that are career and job ready. “We see a higher education sector that has more fluidity between learning, training, and the workforce. […] We see a sector that fosters and supports our young entrepreneurs.” New three-year undergraduate degrees matching labour market needs are presented as one of the approaches for the province’s future.

(II) INNOVATION: In order to establish and consolidate that “fluidity” between universities and the job market, Ontario imagines a post-secondary sector that is “nimble” and “ready to adapt to the accelerating change of pace in technology and our economy.” Increased innovation has the potential to ensure both better outcomes for Ontario graduates and the financial sustainability of this publicly funded sector, given the Government’s need to balance the provincial budget in the long term.

From a similar perspective, CAGS “requests that the Federal Government invest in innovative skills training for graduate students in all disciplines that will complement their academic skills and make them both more competitive and more work place ready.” This investment is seen as crucially important not just for Canadian university graduates, but also – through them – for Canada’s economy and society.

(III) THE INTERNATIONAL DIMENSION: Both organizations are acutely aware of the importance of international mobility. While the Government of Ontario highlights the need to improve Canadian students’ exposure to other environments, the CAGS proposal is more concrete and potentially more consequential. It argues that Canada needs to attract the very best international talent, in a context in which it faces solid competition from other countries.

CAGS “urges the Federal Government to increase its assistance in marketing Canadian universities abroad in specific markets as it did with the very successful trip this spring (2012) to Brazil led by the Governor General. […] The availability of high quality graduate students – who might remain in Canada – and of highly educated and trained workers cannot be taken for granted. Canada has slipped in the OECD rankings of post graduates from the top to close to the bottom of the pack.” The Government of Ontario’s discussion paper is surprisingly light in discussing the impact of international students on the province’s post-secondary sector!

Taken together, these three themes – job-readiness, innovation, and international mobility – form the basis of a debate that Canada’s post-secondary community needs to engage in.  Canada has avoided it for too long, and these latest efforts to launch a national conversation on university education are most opportune. (Organizations are asked to submit written submissions in response to Ontario’s discussion paper, no later than September 30, 2012, to or by email to Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities).

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.

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.