What Brazil knows that we don’t

Other countries are doing serious work to attract international students, but not us

What Brazil knows that we don’t

Pedro Ladeira/Agencia Estado/Keystone Press Agency

This week we are wondering whether the government of Canada thinks it’s more important to talk or to act.

Every now and then, Stephen Harper’s government phones up some experts and asks them to lead a panel and come up with smart advice. Then it ignores the advice. In 2008 it asked a businessman named Red Wilson for advice on making Canada more competitive. Wilson offered 65 recommendations. Most were never implemented. This fall there are new reports, from businessman Tom Jenkins on corporate R&D, and from career soldier Andrew Leslie on the structure of the military. We’ll see whether they do better.

Meanwhile, every week brings a new panel. In October, Ed Fast, the trade minister, was in China announcing a panel to come up with advice on “an international education strategy.”

The “goal” of such a strategy, the news release’s headline said, would be “Stronger Ties with World’s Best and Brightest in Priority Markets.” And how important would the strategy be? Glad you asked. It would be “critical to Canada’s continued economic growth and prosperity,” Fast said. It’s a good panel, as these panels always are. Its chairman is Amit Chakma, who has been making waves as the president of my alma mater, the University of Western Ontario. It’s supposed to report early in the new year.

At which point the horse will already have well and truly left the barn.

This summer, Brazil announced an extraordinarily ambitious program: 75,000 scholarships for Brazilian students to study abroad between now and 2014. Brazil’s government is spending $2 billion on the project. The scholarships will go to students at all levels—undergraduate, grad students, post-docs—but only in the so-called STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The government has dared the private sector to bankroll a further 25,000 scholarships.

It’s instructive to watch how various countries have responded to Brazil’s initiative. Stephen Harper was in Brazil in August, shortly after the scholarship announcement. In his official joint statement with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, he “took note” of the armies of bright young kids about to head out into the world, and “looked forward to welcoming Brazilian students who wish to take advantage of Canada’s high-quality education programs and research excellence.” That’s if any should decide, more or less randomly, that they want to come this far north.

Compare and contrast. The United Kingdom is racked these days with budget-balancing challenges Canada can hardly imagine. It’s cutting the number of foreign-student visas every year by 80,000, a boneheaded policy, if you ask me, but it’s their policy all the same. And yet David Willetts, the U.K.’s minister of state for universities and sciences, took a flight to Brazil a month before Harper’s trip, specifically to lock in Britain as the host of 10,000 of those Brazilian students. These are high-value kids, Willetts calculated, worth bending the rules for.

Who else is getting ready to play host to the Brazilian scholarship students? The United States, of course: they’ll take 35,000 students, nearly half of the total. In June, the Institute of International Education held conference calls with 80 U.S. universities to tell them how to make sure the Brazilian kids choose those schools as their study destination.

Who else? Germany’s on board for 10,000. France will take 5,000. That leaves 15,000, spread among “institutes in Asia and other countries in the Americas and Europe.” Probably some will wash up on Canadian shores, more or less by accident. That’s the way it usually goes. Paul Davidson, the president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC), told me that of 50,000 Brazilians already studying abroad, 500 are in Canadian universities, basically a rounding error.

I called Ted Hewitt, the vice-president (research and international relations) at Western, to ask him about all this. He responded in tones approaching despair. It looks like a bunch of other countries are doing serious work to attract international students and we’re not, I said. “I know. We’re not. And we’re behind the eight ball again,” he said.

The AUCC is sending a delegation of university presidents to the Conference of the Americas on International Education in Rio de Janeiro in April. Governor General David Johnston will lead the delegation. It’s all very impressive—unless our universities get to Brazil about eight months too late to do any good. “I told [the AUCC] we need to be there now,” Hewitt said. “And that means yesterday. Last week. Last month.”

Why all the fuss about Brazil? Well, remember what Ed Fast said about “priority markets.” Brazil is the largest country in South America. It’s becoming prosperous, with 40 million people joining its middle class in the past decade. It’s a model for its neighbours, which helps explain why Chile has its own program to send 30,000 students abroad by 2018.

For half a decade Harper has claimed an “Americas Strategy” is a pillar of his foreign policy. It’s why he was in Brazil in the summer in the first place. But we will all soon see whether Harper likes to talk about a strategy or have one, and whether Canada would rather educate foreign students or talk about educating them. All I know is what Ed Fast told me: this is critical.

Looking for more?

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