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University leaders highlight to Commons committee the importance of international students and research

Speaking to Parliamentarians last month about universities’ response to COVID-19, university presidents asked for support for international students and continued emergency research funding.

BY NATALIE SAMSON | SEP 23 2020

On August 14, four days before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prorogued Parliament, representatives from the academic research and university sector addressed the House of Commons Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology about the Canadian response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was one of several meetings the committee held since April with representatives from a range of sectors for a study on the response. Over the course of the two-hour video conference, members of parliament heard from Ed McCauley, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Calgary; Matt Ratto, associate professor and Bell University Labs Chair in Human-Computer Interaction at the University of Toronto; Philip Landon, vice-president and chief operating officer at Universities Canada; Denis Martel, rector at Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue; and Magda Fusaro, rector of Université du Québec à Montréal.

As part of his testimony, Dr. McCauley listed the many ways that his institution quickly transitioned to online learning in the spring, while students and staff also supported pandemic relief efforts through volunteerism and research. He noted that the work they’d accomplished in a matter of months would usually take years. “COVID-19 has shown the crucial roles that universities play to support Canadians, which is why I’m pushing as hard as I can to ensure that we learn from this year’s decade of innovation,” he said.

He finished by noting that these “pivots” were expensive to implement. He called for investment in work-integrated learning, upskilling, research, and technology platforms as a way to prepare Canada to respond to this and future crises. “Investment in postsecondary is both an investment in our future and an investment preparing for the next unknown.”

International students, research and innovation, and infrastructure figured prominently in remarks by Philip Landon of Universities Canada (publisher of University Affairs). “International students are part of the rich, diverse fabric of our institutions and their communities,” Mr. Landon said. “They’re also one of the biggest sources of revenue for Canadian universities and their communities. They contribute $22 billion to the Canadian economy – more than softwood, more than wheat, more than auto parts. This includes $6 billion in tuition revenue. With the closed borders and with the pandemic, we can anticipate significantly lower international student enrolment this fall. This loss will directly impact all students and the ability for universities to meet the needs of Canadian students.” Should such revenue shortfalls occur, he asked that federal assistance by way of direct federal transfer be granted to “help universities bridge their operations until borders are open.”

He added that the sector is “keen to send a strong signal to the international community that Canada is open to international students” and that universities will be looking for assistance to broaden source markets for international students as part of their financial recovery.

For her part, UQAM’s Dr. Fusaro thanked the federal government for its support of the sector throughout the pandemic, though she had harsh words about where much of those funds were funneled. “We lament the concentration of funding in a handful of universities in the country. … Why is it that research funding was concentrated … mostly in the U15 or in universities that have a faculty of medicine?” she said, addressing the committee in French. “COVID is not only an epidemiological crisis, it is an economic crisis, a social crisis, among others. Even if our universities don’t have faculties of medicine, over 800 researchers are working today on solutions and they are from all backgrounds, all fields.” Her top recommendation to the committee was a more equitable redistribution of funds to universities and to research teams.

The question period that followed touched on issues ranging from internet connectivity in rural areas (it was widely agreed that this infrastructure must be improved upon) to universities’ role in economic recovery (investments in community- and partnership-based research, microcredentials and upskilling, and work-integrated-learning opportunities were encouraged). Meanwhile, several MPs and speakers returned to the issue of international students.

MP Michelle Rempel Garner (Calgary – Nose Hill) asked Dr. McCauley about the specific challenges that U of Calgary has faced during the pandemic and what he would ask from the provincial and federal governments to help. He said that business continuity has been a priority, which the university was able to maintain largely by pivoting some of its research portfolio towards COVID-19. He underlined the importance or ongoing research funding of all kinds, including for graduate students. But he also reiterated the university’s need for clarity on the situation facing international students. “Admission for students is really important. We have around 4,500 [international] students we hope to host this year,” Dr. McCauley said.

Mr. Landon specifically noted that international students who are travelling to Canada for school this year are facing inconsistent responses from border agents and asked for clearer directives for border entry. Dr. Martel at UQAT added that by keeping international students out “all of Canada runs the risk of missing out on these brilliant brains and innovation.”

MP Majid Jowhari (Richmond Hill) noted that his office had heard from many international students who had been living in Canada before the pandemic and were now finding it difficult to secure funding from their home countries to cover tuition and living expenses. He wondered how the government and institutions could work together to help these students. Mr. Landon noted that international students were shut out of the federal government’s Canada Emergency Student Benefit. They “fell through the cracks,” he said. Dr. McCauley suggested that continued research funding would go a long way to support international graduate students, while UQAT’s Dr. Martel suggested the federal government could transfer funds to regional and community organizations that could directly support international students in need.

In a final question about the perceived value of a degree earned through distance education in a pandemic, Dr. McCauley again spoke up to agree with other speakers that the quality of education at Canadian universities remains high during this time. But he also reiterated the importance of “the Canadian experience.” He said, “having students from around the world come to Canada, having students from different parts of Canada experience all of Canada, I think is really, really important as part of the Canadian experience. There are huge discussions around the commodification of education around the world, but I think what we value is the Canadian experience.”

The committee’s study was put on hold when Parliament was prorogued on August 18. Governor General Julie Payette is set to deliver a Throne Speech on September 23, which will effectively get Parliamentarians back to work.

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