Making Canada’s universities the world’s universities

Today in Halifax, Trade Minister Ed Fast officially received a report from Western University president Amit Chakma and the rest of Chakma’s panel on internationalizing Canadian higher education. Here it is, under the horse-tranquilizer title “International Eduction: A Key Driver of Canada’s Future Prosperity.” It’s worth a read, but here’s the short version.

Chakma and his panel argue, at the government’s request, what Chakma has been arguing anyway for years: that Canada’s universities prosper when they have a large foreign-student component, and that Canadian students also benefit from study abroad.

This works a few different ways. First, travel is broadening, new perspectives, yadda yadda. Impossible to measure but probably true. Second, that some portion of international students who come to Canada stay after study and add to our human capital. People like Amit Chakma. Third, that even if they go home, that’s not a loss because it adds to a global network of highly-talented people who owe Canada a lot and are likely to stay in touch. Finally, that drawing your students and researchers from a wider pool raises the bar for every participant: a university that recruits globally is a better and more challenging university than one which recruits only locally.

So what to do? The panel’s recommendations are bold only in comparison with a policy of doing nothing. And sometimes not even then. Chakma wants to double the number of international students in Canadian universities to 450,000 in 10 years; that represents an annual growth rate of 7%, which is lower than the rate of growth over each of the last two years.

He wants 50,000 Canadian students a year to study at least part of the year abroad.

He wants the federal government — indeed, the prime minister himself — to become a “unifying champion for international education.” With a permanent secretariat at DFAIT. This, if it happens, would complete an about-face from 2006, when then-Treasury Board President John Baird worked hard to get the feds out of the business of promoting higher education, because that was supposed to be the provinces’ business.

People who haven’t been following this issue closely may be surprised that Chakma handed his report to the trade minister (although when it comes to who does what in this government, nothing’s really surprising any more.) But it makes sense. Educational services provided to non-Canadians in return for their spending on Canadian soil can be construed as an export. And international education is a bigger market every year. The Chakma report quotes from another recent report, from Vancouver’s Roslyn Kunin and Associates, that seeks to put dollar figures on this activity.

“When the value of educational services provided in Canada to international students is compared to the value of the more traditional goods that Canada exports, the impact for some countries is even more striking. The Saudi Arabians, for example, spend the equivalent of 44% of the value of the goods they import from Canada on educational services. Similarly, we see that South Korea (19.1%), China (13.9%), India (27.9%), and France (14.2%) all spend significantly for educational services when compared to the trade in goods they import from Canada.”

I was struck by something in the Kunin report: the meek and gentle suggestion that the best policy, as regards those foreign students, isn’t to soak them for the highest possible tuition fee on entry. Australia and New Zealand, which used to levy such dizzying differential fees that it distorted universities’ academic priorities, have lately offered fee waivers for high-achieving grad students. The next paragraph in the Kunin report is a marvel of multiple meaning:

“Given the competition in the global international education market, educational policy makers may need to re-examine the practice of differential tuitions and fees. However, it is important to note that, for example, the 95 members of AUCC are public and private not-for-profit universities and university-degree level colleges. Therefore, the motive for differential tuition is not profit as the funds cover the full costs of international students’ participation. Often, the preferred route for top talent is scholarships at the graduate level (both provided by universities themselves and some of the new federal government scholarships). These more than offset the tuition fees, yet draw less controversy (particularly when the domestic students can compete for the same scholarships).”

Let’s take this in three parts. Kunin is saying Canada competes in a vigorous global market for the best students, and needs to consider price incentives. Then she says universities mustn’t worry that they’d lose out if they charged lower tuitions. And finally, she admits that lowering tuition for foreign students can be political touchy (the widest differential in the country, as a multiple of the basic undergrad tuition rate, is in Quebec), but that you can achieve the same effect with graduate scholarships. And then she says that, while the goal of these scholarships is to internationalize the student body, it’s probably safest to offer the scholarships to locals to, even though that would dilute the policy’s desired effect. There were skirmishes during the last Ontario election on that last point, as Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty was caught guilty of thinking in straight lines and offered a new set of scholarships only to foreign students. He was criticized for this decision, not only by Conservative Tim Hudak, but by the New Democrats. But I digress.

It’s worth noting that Chakma’s panel report echoes, in most of its particulars, a paper written by UBC president Stephen Toope for the CCCE. Toope, sitting on the Pacific, makes it clear he’s thinking mostly about Asian students.

I couldn’t help noticing that this call for a rapid increase in the number of international students comes on a day when François Legault, one of the opposition leaders in Quebec, is in hot water for saying Quebec students want “the good life” and that Asian kids would be a better model. Legault’s goofy way of expressing his thoughts aside, one way to ensure Canadian education more closely approximates the best in the world is to make sure Canada is recognized and sought after, internationally, as one of the best places to be educated.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.