Making Canada's universities the world's universities -

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.


Making Canada’s universities the world’s universities

  1. I like how I say I’m going to take Kunin’s argument in three parts and then divide it into four.

    • Math is hard.

      • Which is why we need better universities.

  2. When your rationale for doing something is because everyone else is doing it, it means you’ve probably already missed the bus. The reputation of the educational institutions should define the demand for international students (it’s not as though our universities aren’t promoting themselves already) and that’s not something that changes overnight. Perhaps this call for more international students has motivations in the reduced numbers of domestic students who are questioning whether their investment is worthwhile? The universities certainly trumpet repeatedly the economic advantages of a degree in justifying the cost, but those advantages have waned for the past 3 years and, more importantly, the challenging experiences of recent graduates in finding work that values their degree are not falling on deaf ears. Perhaps the whole model of higher education needs revamping. With on-line courses (many free), perhaps the idea of inglorious teaching hostels that remain remarkably similar to their 12th Century origins, has passed its prime?

  3. Let’s also make Canada’s hospitals the world’s hospitals. Invest tax dollars into providing cheap high quality care to people from all over the world. Forget Canadians, we want the best and most deserving patients. They will owe a debt to Canada, and I’m sure that will pay off in some way or another.

    • If Canada was the most educated country on the planet, we’d also be the most medically advanced country on the planet.

      The best in education and health…..this would be a good thing…for us and the world.

    • Except nobody said that the point of educating foreign students was so that they’d owe a debt to Canada. But rather that they form strong connections with Canadians, Canadian culture, and Canadian businesses.

      Although I suppose if the only connections you have with people are if you owe them or if they owe you, you might not understand the difference.

    • Quite a few of our hospitals already do this. They are obligated not push Canadians to the back of the line but who can really say whether this occurs. As health budgets get tighter, expect to see more international patients in our hospitals.

  4. This plan is pretty backwards looking. Universities as we have known them are dying institutions in dire need of creative destruction and rebirth. This plan is mainly looking to justify their now bloated, inefficient, and costly existence.

    (One really need only look at the unsustainable education debt bubble in the US. The classical university system is set to implode over the next generation.)

    The internet is close to revolutionizing the delivery of educational services. I think it is only a matter of time, and the time will be sooner than most think.
    I am willing to wager that education is going to go mainly virtual and diffuse

    • The thesis is partly this. Conventional universities have huge legacy pension costs. (Defined benefit pension plans are just one of the original crazy financial derivative products that have been foisted upon the dumb taxpayer, that are now blowing up.) Paying tuition is becoming more paying somebody’s pension rather than paying for an education. More and more of the public funding of universities is going to go to pay for the legacy costs rather than ongoing education. Huge student debt is being accumulated to pay for this. Private online universities should be able to disrupt and basically gut conventional universities over time, since they won’t have legacy pension and infrastructure costs.

      I doubt Asian and emerging market students are going to be dumb enough to not realize pretty quickly that they are being targeted as Ponzi suckers to pay for these legacy pension costs rather than for an education.

      Canadian university salaries were driven up to unsustainable levels by the university education bubble in the United States.

      The Canadian taxpayer will be the bagholder when the whole system begins to implode over time.

      • Private or public, online universities still have costs….if you stopped worrying about doing some poor bugger out of his pension, you’d realize this.

  5. I think it would be a mistake to try to “double the number of international students in Canadian universities”. If you want good universities, try to draw good students (regardless of whether they’re Canadian or international). If instead you want to satisfy some kind of multicultural metric, then yes, double the number of international students – but accept that you’re muddying your attempts to get the best students.

    I agree with reducing fees for international students. Make fees (and scholarships) solely merit-based rather than reserving plum scholarships for Canadian students. If you’re a top student, we pay you to study and we don’t care whether you’re Canadian.

    As the Silicon Valley experience shows, once fine minds move to your area to study, they tend to stick around and either generate spinoff companies or teach at their alma mater. Some of the spinoffs become hugely successful companies in your area, resulting in lots of jobs, lots of money, and lots more fine minds moving to the area.

  6. Doubling our R+D and increasing Co-op programmes funded by NDP corporate tax rates would be my solution. I like the Co-ops here after it was mentioned immigrants cost twice the welfare programme funding of a cdn ($16k/yr vs $8k/yr). Building have a long lifespan so I like building them at low interest rates. The U of M grains facility; there were supposed to be 4 tenants. The roof in the coldest and warmest city too I think, in the land, had a hole in it 5 years ago. The new building was cancelled after CWB privitization….
    Raw edible oatmeal and cheaply oil-less stoarable wheat, and any GMO other species with such traits, will be huge. I like AB committing to $3B of grain R+D here. Whjat are the carbon life cycle costs of different goods they could manufacture in leiu of tar? Keeping in mind upgrading telecom and software is considered service sector and I’m defining it as manufacturing (ie. potentially permanent with retraining and retooling). This is all connected to education. I know our chemical and petroleum engineers can find related employers if we build them. I have a feeling you almost want the Germans to beat us.

    • “”
      An example of green plastic products from methane or other petro. It would be difficult to plan such market entries, but what is the alternative??
      Plastics refined from a petro precursor.

  7. And the answer to recruiting students? Not to improve research and thereby improve the “brand” of the university, but to hire a bunch of marketing gurus and corporate wanks to try to sell the university. *sigh*. HUGE waste of money. Does Stanford need to advertise? No. Reputation will bring the students, not marketing.

  8. As a medical student, I’ve experienced first-hand how top American medical schools value intellect and true maturity as opposed to resume-filling and race (that’s right UofT!) when selecting their students. This is symbolic of the true problem with the Canadian post-secondary system in general: a penchant for mediocrity. There are far greener pastures in America, and until the Canadian system begins to value true competence and intelligence – adieu.

    • Funny, that’s what the profs said about the Aurora theatre shooter…. he had ‘intellect and maturity’

      And we can see the level of medical intelligence in all the US doctors that assured Akin of a medieval theory of rape.

      Find another country to study in….one past the 12th century.

  9. An important questions is whether we want international student in order to generate revenue for universities and others, or whether we want to recruit the very best international students to ensure that we have excellent programs. These are different and how you go about accomplishing this goals should be different.