Monday, December 12, 2011

Canada's International Education Strategy

Last week, I was invited to take part in a roundtable discussion on Canada’s International Education Strategy. Hosted by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade’s Advisory Panel on International Education, the session brought together a group of people from within the education sector to share ideas on how our nation can build a successful international education strategy.
To prepare for the session, we were asked to consider the following question:
“How can we collectively contribute to a strategy that strengthens Canada’s ability to attract top international students and export our education competencies?”
I believe there is certainly a need for a Canadian strategy for international education, one that involves significant investment by government to promote our educational “brand” and showcase the wide range of opportunities available in Canada. This investment can be especially helpful to smaller universities, who are at times financially challenged to engage in this arena, despite often being the best “fit” for international students wishing to integrate into Canadian society.
The Mount, home to a diverse and vibrant international student body, prides itself on being such a fit. This past year, our international student population grew by 22 per cent and now represents 10 per cent of the overall student body. These students come to our university for many reasons, including our strong programming, intimate and engaging campus community and the flexible and unique learning opportunities we provide. 
A great deal of focus has been devoted to the economic return international students bring to the regions in which they study. Atlantic Canada as an example has certainly benefited from its strong international student recruitment efforts. According to a study conducted by the Council of Atlantic Ministers of Education and Training (CAMET), these students contributed $565 million to the region’s economy in 2009-2010. 
In addition, many of these students are potentially a source of new and highly educated immigrants to our region, an important benefit in light of our declining population.  For students who wish to remain in Canada after they graduate, we need to develop stronger pathways to employment through collaboration among post-secondary institutions, the business community and government. The federal government’s recent announcement that it would assist up to 1,000 international PhD students to become permanent residents was welcomed by the education community as a step in the right direction.
At the same time, we need to balance the value international students bring to our province and country with our moral obligation as global citizens.  To focus entirely on the economic benefits to Canada of internationalization would be to ignore the wide range of valuable work many Canadian universities have traditionally undertaken in their international initiatives. We have made important contributions in areas such as building capacity in developing countries’ universities and addressing social justice issues such as women’s access to education. Recently, there have been a number of media stories on the effects of “brain drain” from the developing world to Canada in fields like medicine. A number of Canadian universities are stepping up to partner with universities abroad to help them build critical capacity in medical training so as to increase the supply of trained medical professionals in their countries.
My own university, within its international work, is still driven by its primary values of advancing the interests of women and addressing social inequities. We’re well aware that these efforts may not be the most economically prudent areas for investment, but we’re also confident that these efforts are of significant value. .
There is no question that Canada’s international Education Strategy must take into account the benefits Canada accrues from attracting international students, as well as the long-term advantage of retaining these students post-graduation. Yet we also need to understand and appreciate the benefits our nation can reap from having these students return to their home countries as friends of Canada. 
Each year our universities are graduating future political leaders, women and men who will realize groundbreaking discoveries in medical research, global entrepreneurs who specialize in international trade. Some of these students will decide to remain in Canada; some will choose to share their education and skills with their home communities.
Canada’s strategy must support both choices. 
In the military arena, we pride ourselves on our role as peacekeepers, and equally in the education world we have a role to play as trusted partners to aid in nation building.