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.


What Brazil knows that we don’t

  1. Not only is it good to attract these students, but in addition Canada should make it easier for them to remain after their degree is completed so that they can start companies and apply their research, rather than be forced take it home with them.
    Many, many of the most successful US companies were started by newcomers.

    • This would be tricky but not un-doable. Brazil stipulates that its scholarship recipients must come home for a set time after graduation. In the language of Ontario Conservative leader Tim Hudak, we’d be “spending our tax dollars to educate them so they can leave.” But (a) many might come back, once they’d fulfilled the terms of the scholarship deal (b) it’s hardly a bad thing to have a generation of rising technical and scientific talent in Brazil with close personal ties to Canadians. As Hewitt put it to me, “That’s one more person we can network with.” (c) While they’re here, they’re increasing the metabolism of the Canadian institution they’re studying at. 

      • And meeting potential spouses, and creating reasons to stay…

        • I am not certain about other fields, but in Engineering about 70 percent of foreign students will at least make an attempt to stay in Canada (or return).

  2. ‘And we’re behind the eight ball again,” he said.’

    Seems to be our permanent position anymore.
    While the world is moving forward into a new age, Canada is busy recycling old issues, old policies, and old arguments.

  3. So what is Stephen Harper supposed to do to “attract and educate foreign students”? If a foreign country like Brazil will pay to educate its students abroad, then if Canadian universities are good, they will attract their share of subsidized students. The purpose of this for Brazil  is to educate its workforce of the future to benefit Brazil, i.e. those students will go home with their new skills to help Brazil. It is not as I see it to send their talent abroad as migrants.

    What we (Canada) need to do is prepare our talented young people for the future by focusing on the STEM disciplines. If this means sending students abroad because our own universities are no good and useless at the STEM disciplines and therefore not relevant to providing Canada with the skills needed to boost productivity and prosperity, then this is a good strategy to follow. But I think some of our universities have invested too much in liberal arts and social sciences that they would resist any federal effort to focus on the STEM disciplines as its principal federal post-secondary education strategy. Judging from the Ignatieff “Education Passport” idea from the last election, I expect there would be political resistance as well to a STEM discipline-only federal subsidy for post secondary students in Canada or abroad. Pity.

    • Does the STEM system teach students to explain what an acronym means? Does it also encourage the use of run on sentences and terrible grammar?

      • That’s ‘run-on’ sentences.

  4. As well we ought to be making it more accessible and affordable for Canadian students to study abroad, learn new languages and be exposed to different perspectives and mindset. In an increasingly globalized world, it’s becoming ever more important to have these skills and experiences to remain competitive in a global economy.

  5. Why would Brazilian officials want to send their kids to a country that is confused by screw drivers and hammers and can’t add .50 + .25. Maybe Brazil looked at Canada and decide to send their students elsewhere. If I was keen to educate future generations in science and math to help my country, would I really send them to Canada? 

    Also, Canadian universities are keen on foreign students because they pay more, correct? Foreign students are way to raise funds. There are only so many places at Canadian universities to study so why are Canadians expected to contribute financially to university system and then get elbowed aside by foreigners with cash.  

    Maclean’s ~ Why Your Teenager Can’t Use Hammer:

    It’s hard not to laugh when Barry Smith starts telling stories about the hapless young workers he has to deal with. Smith, who runs Toronto-area roofing company RoofSmith Canada, tells of one who didn’t come to work because his cat had fleas, and another who jumped off a shed roof, even though he’d just tossed bags of nails into the garbage bin below. But the laughing tapers off when Smith, 46, talks about skills.

    Globe/Mail ~ Too Many Teachers Can’t Do Math:

    Across the country, university math professors report that the math skills of students who are studying to become teachers are generally abysmal. Basic skills such as adding fractions or calculating percentages are frequently beyond them.

    • a) Science, and tech have nothing to do with hammers and nails.

      b) No Canadian student has ever been kept out of university so that foreign students could attend instead.

      • a) No, but they have a lot to do with math. Then again, Tony is citing a comment on high school teachers by our university profs whereas the article is about getting them to attend our universities, so he’s a bit off base (as usual)

        b) That’s a pretty broad statement; can you back it up? (I’d like to think you’re right, but I have my doubts…)

        • Hammers and nails don’t have anything to do with math either.

          Tony made the statement, it’s up to him to back it up. [don’t hold your breath]

          • Solis Magazine: 

            Jobs’ childhood home created by adopted parents Paul and Clara Jobs incubated Steve’s inherit intensity and curiosity. Jobs’ father taught him to build and tinker while his neighbors introduced him to electronics, which Jobs put into practice disassembling products like the family television to see the inner workings. These experiences laid the foundation for his success in design and technology.

            There’s link to U of T site that tells you applicant/registrants for each program. Why are all those Canadian students turned away if we can find space for international students?


            University of Toronto:
            International students (2008-2009):
            5,182 undergraduate degree seeking students
            1,579 graduate degree seeking students
            326 certificate, diploma and special students
            779 residents and post-graduate medical students

          • I took TVs apart Tony…and I tinkered as well. It’s all there was then.

            Not the same as roofing with hammer and nails….and today people tinker with iPads and other electronic devices.

            You think Einstein or Marie Curie ever even saw a hammer and nails? I doubt Bill Gates did either.

            And Canada scores very well in international math and science tests, so ignore Wente.

            I see you have no back-up for your statement on Canadian kids being refused either….because no one has been.

            There are currently over 80 universities in Canada…and when they get near capacity the govt simply creates new spaces.

  6. I would think that the point is that Brazil doesn’t know, which is why they are sending out several divisions worth of students.  Won’t these newly minted degree holders apply that knowledge in developing productive industry that will, presumably, be used to compete with firms in the countries where the Brazilians where educated?  Why doesn’t Brazil just give out 75,000 visa to higher degree holders?^

    The world does not lack holders of higher degrees*.  Europe is full to the brim with unused ones.  Human capital rotting away.   We also do not have a productivity problem.  We can produce and meet our wants with relative ease.  Not everyone’s needs are met, I will grant, as there are significant instances of surplus and dearth across the planet.  One should not be lead into thinking that this is a problem without solution, the uneven distribution, or that nobody has attempted to address it.  Figuratively speaking, there are many plans sitting on the shelf waiting to be deployed, mostly produced by higher degree holders.  If the object is to make plans to put on the shelf, I guess we can look forward to the new offering of Brazilian made plans to ignore.

    The thing is, innovation upsets the apple cart.  Lest you think that innovation is, in all instances, a good thing, how would you feel if your house was suddenly made worthless (in the sense of complete and total loss with no recompense?).  I wouldn’t be so keen.  A house isn’t the only type of asset, either. No, there are lots of holders of other asset classes that have little interest in innovation.  Even companies that are champions of innovation are actually only champions of innovations that they have a vested interest in.  Apple isn’t keen on seeing their product line eclipsed by something else.  

    To end, this isn’t a bold new ground breaking program by Brazil.  It is an attempt to make their gain from someone else’s loss.  Fair enough.  Lots are making hay off that strategy.  But I want to call it for what it is: a desperate measure.  Look around, governments are being forced into all kinds of desperate measures.  Why?  

    * Of course the world really is lacking in higher degree holders, but the ones that we do have are not all being put to use where they are found (and not because there is no want where they are found) and are blocked from being put to use when they could be put to use elsewhere.

    ^ The obvious answer is that they wish to have their own progeny (the ones that through mismanagement actually get delivered) tied up doing “useful” things.  Plus, there is the whole resentment issue.  Which begs the question: won’t the Brits, French, Germans & etc. be a little bitter that their spots are being taken by a higher bidder?

    • I’ve read this several times and I still have no idea what it means.

      What it ‘sounds’ like is that you have a degree, and you don’t want anybody else to have one.

      I’m sure you’ll correct me if I’m wrong.

      As to innovation…it is occurring around us all the time. What would be nice is if we were innovating too.

  7. Why would we follow the path of a former Marxist revolutionary?

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

    At long last! The dawn of ratiocination! I mean for Paul – the ignoramuses controlling the government of Canada are hopeless. They have never learned these rules of good public relations:

    1. Do the right thing. 2. Be seen to be doing the right thing. 3. Don’t get #1 and #2 mixed up.


  9. Universities are plain and simple businesses, looking for profit.

    Before looking for $$$ abroad, Universities should focus on quality education for our own students (meaningfull programs, smaller classes) to ensure high rates of graduation, as opposed to admittance to Universities. 

    As far as the foreign students are concerned, two things need to change:
    – admittance tests
    – charge the full costs of education, operational and infrastructure costs

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