When it comes to foreign students, Canada earns 'F' for recruitment

Report recommends the creation of a new Crown corporation called Education Canada

As the battle intensifies to woo foreign students to Western universities, a new report says Canada is a roadblock to its own success.

One of the reasons Canada—with 120,000 international students—trails countries such as England, with 427,000, and Australia, with almost 250,000 (all numbers from a 2011 UNESCO report), is the lack of a unified brand to promote itself, according to the report released Tuesday by the Council of Chief Executives and the Canadian International Council. That’s because the provinces have sole jurisdiction over education; Canada is the only developed country without a national education ministry.

“This puts us at a disadvantage, in that everyone chooses to go their own way,” says Bernard Simon, author of the report and a former Financial Times correspondent in Canada. “People know about Canada. They don’t know about Nova Scotia, they don’t know about the University of Manitoba.”

Just ask Cape Breton University. Like other Canadian schools struggling with declining enrolment, its foreign recruiting has resulted in a university population where 30 per cent of more than 2,500 students come from outside Canada. But when recruiters go abroad, they can only look upon the U.K. and Australian delegations with envy.

“They have a federal policy, they have a federal strategy, they are a one-stop approach,” says Keith Brown, vice-president of CBU’s external department.

“We have to make it clear to people that when we talk about the educational side of things, we cannot talk about the visa or the immigration implications. Only the government of Canada can talk about that.”

In a 2011 UNESCO ranking of international students per country, Canada came in eighth. Its ability to attract students from China, the biggest source of foreign students, is dismal, at best, with only 3.8 per cent.

“Education Canada would ‘act more nimbly than the groups that currently coordinate international education marketing and strategy,’ the report says.

Education Canada would capitalize on the brand awareness that Canada already has, says Simon. “It would go out there and promote Canada, because the individual universities aren’t going to do that and the provinces aren’t going to do that.”

The report also says the International Education Strategy, unveiled by the federal government just five months ago, already needs an overhaul. It seeks to double the number of foreign researchers and students to more than 450,000 by 2022.

Experts agree the strategy is too focused on boosting the number of foreign students in Canada without encouraging Canadian students to study abroad. The report recommends Canada replace its “largely ineffective” “Imagine Education in Canada” campaign with one that would feature opportunities for Canadian students to study in other countries.

“It’s not that Canadian students haven’t gone abroad, but what it appears to need is a more concerted, more organized program to make that happen in larger numbers,” says Simon.

Obama’s 100,000 Strong Initiative in 2009 sought to radically increase the number of American students studying in China. A second 100,000 Strong program for Latin America and the Caribbean was launched in 2011.

“Canada seems to think of education as a really crude export industry, and we look at it in a really mercantilist fashion, where we want more people to come in and we don’t really care if people go out or not,” says Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, based in Toronto.

Jennifer Jeffs, president of the Canadian International Council, says international education should be part of Canada’s foreign policy strategy. As a tool of “soft diplomacy,” encouraging students to go abroad, where they form meaningful relationships, would improve foreign relations and Canada’s reputation.

While Canada may not have the highest standard of education and research or the most competitive fees, it still has an unmatched reputation as a tolerant, multicultural and safe society, which it should capitalize on.

“The overriding concern is that Canada is not getting as much as it deserves from international education,” says Simon. “All the building blocks are there to make Canada a real powerhouse in international education, and yet, it hasn’t happened.”

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