The new campus of the University of Waterloo has lots of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Iranian students, but none from Ontario. You’ll see more hijabs than Flames jerseys at the University of Calgary’s new nursing school. That’s because both schools are in the Middle East—and they aren’t meant for Canadians.
Waterloo’s new campus in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Calgary’s three-year-old nursing school in Doha, Qatar, reflect a new strategy by Canadian universities to recruit bright students, train professors, and build connections throughout the world. These new campuses aren’t just small universities either. They’re mini diplomatic missions. If you ask Amit Chakma, president of the University of Western Ontario, they’re also the key to Canada’s future place in the world.
Under the leadership of Canada’s new Governor General, David Johnston (who was president of the University of Waterloo at the time), Chakma helped oversee the development of the new Dubai campus of Waterloo before moving into the president’s chair at Western. He’s not shy about his ambitions for the school. “The British education system of the 19th century, particularly Oxford, Cambridge and the London School of Economics, influenced the rest of the world,” says Chakma. “It produced leaders like Gandhi, who then took what they learned back to their home countries. Turn the clock forward and you don’t influence the world through your economic or military power, but through your people, ideas and connectivity. At the end of the day, it’s the people who build the country’s bridges,” he explains. In other words, the campuses will help Canadian ideas—and Canadian values—spread through the new relationships they foster. “Think of the difficulties we’re having between the Islamic world and the Western world,” he says. “Why wouldn’t we be offering opportunities of a modern, liberal, Western education for those in Dubai who want to take advantage of it?”
The first two years of Waterloo U.A.E.’s programs (which include chemical and civil engineering, financial analysis and information technology management) are taught by Waterloo professors, who build connections with businesses and potential research partners during their residencies in Dubai. The students, many of them sons and daughters of foreigners working in the Middle East, will spend the final two years on campus in Waterloo, where they build connections with Canadian students and professors. After four years, they earn a coveted Canadian degree.
The Waterloo graduates then make good candidates for admission as immigrants under the new Canadian Experience Class, an immigration scheme that allows foreigners who have studied here to fast-track their residency, so long as they’re employed in the year after graduation. If they don’t choose to stay in Canada, they will take their well-travelling Canadian degree and spread the good word about Canada abroad. “What happens when someone gets a degree from Canada is the person retains their link to Canada all their life,” explains Leo Rothenburg, vice-president, international at Waterloo. “We call them ambassadors.” One day, there will be as many as 3,000 such ambassadors graduating every year.
Calgary’s nursing school offers students from around the world the opportunity to earn a Canadian degree in the Middle East. (Unlike Waterloo’s program, they spend the entire four years in Qatar.) Gail Fredrickson, acting public affairs director for the University of Calgary Qatar, says her school is helping Canada’s image in a region “of growing importance.” She says that Qatar’s people are fascinated by Canada. Case in point: two nursing students who travelled to Calgary were profiled by the local newspaper when they returned. “It was big news in Qatar!” says Fredrickson.
The Canadian branch campuses aren’t just in the Middle East. Since 2005, the University of Waterloo has partnered with Nanjing University to offer the University of Waterloo environmental engineering program. Chinese students spend two years in China before arriving at Waterloo. Once in Canada, the students are offered classes where they brush up on their English while learning everything from how to navigate Canadian grocery shops to how to use the local bus system. Graduates of the program earn both a Chinese and a Canadian degree. After that, about 50 per cent stay in Canada for graduate work. Some stay permanently.
Unlike the many lucrative graduate programs Canadian schools have set up overseas, these undergraduate campuses are not money-making schemes. Waterloo says they have not turned a profit in the U.A.E.—nor is that their goal. Waterloo hopes to profit in a non-monetary sense by providing its Canadian undergrads with the opportunity to study in foreign countries, while still learning from Canadian professors. So far, the school has only provided a few co-op students with experience in China and Dubai. But next year, Waterloo will offer engineering students the option to spend six four to six weeks in Nanjing.
According to Leo Rothenburg, Waterloo has already profited in another way from the bridges it’s building overseas. Waterloo professor Lei Xu was able to develop a new low-cost steel-frame structure that can withstand earthquakes after meeting new research partners on the other side of the Pacific in 2005. After the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 killed upwards of 69,000 people, the Chinese government asked him to help make new cities safer. “Research that happened in Waterloo is being applied to a make houses safer in China,” explains a proud Rothenburg. “That wouldn’t have happened without these relationships.”
Waterloo is getting noticed, too. “I once chatted with a gentlemen in the lounge of Beijing airport who was an official from the Housing Ministry,” says Rothenburg, who gave the man a business card. “He knew Waterloo—because he knew about [Xu’s] work.”