In November, International Trade Minister Stockwell Day released a report, “The Economic Impact of International Education in Canada.” This study concluded that the education of international students is a major export industry for Canada and of significant benefit to the economy.
The report received limited attention in the general press but is actually of some importance. In the past, the government and the public, concerned about spaces for Canadians, have shown considerable ambivalence about the presence of international students. In turn, most Canadian universities have a relatively short history of active recruitment of international students and have often maintained a somewhat defensive attitude toward the presence of those students on their campus. Mr. Day’s report, though, both emphasizes the growth in international enrolment in Canada and gives a sort of informal political imprimatur to the continued expansion of an international presence in Canadian universities.
For these reasons, it is more important than ever that Canadian universities consider carefully the implications of international enrolment. Do we have the policies in place to support growth and do we see our universities assuming an international leadership role in the field? If we do, we have a responsibility to ensure that the students have every opportunity to succeed and that the reputation of Canadian universities is enhanced overseas in the process.
The statistics on international students in Canada send a mixed message. On the one hand, there has been considerable growth in recent years. In 2008 about seven percent of undergraduate students in Canada were international, up from five percent in 2001. Mr. Day’s study put the number at 178,000 postsecondary international students in Canada. Yet relative to some of our Commonwealth partners, our numbers are still low. Australia, with about two-thirds Canada’s population, had over 300,000 in the same year. New Zealand’s level was much higher, relative to overall university enrolment. Great Britain maintains its longstanding role as a major exporter of advanced education, with more than 2.3 million international students. In spite of recent growth, therefore, Canada is still far from a leader in the field.
Part of the reason is our late entry into the field of active recruitment. Our universities’ concerted attention on the international education market extends back no further than the early 1990s. It is true that Canadian universities have long had a significant international graduate student population, often between 15 and 20 percent of overall graduate enrolment at the major research institutions. Undergraduate enrolment, however, was uneven both by institution and region. Indeed, anyone looking at undergraduate enrolment in the 1990s would have noticed two trends. First, that international undergraduate enrolment was actually decreasing in Canada and second, that for most institutions this group of students was marginal to overall enrolment trends.
In the last 15 years, though, Canadian universities have started to pay attention. They now use various strategies in an attempt to entice qualified students from around the world. There are large international recruitment fairs, or the shopping bazaar approach, where dozens of universities descend on a region, set up booths and encourage students to see what each institution has to offer. There are also efforts directed by international recruitment teams at individual institutions. Sometimes these operate essentially like domestic recruitment, with visits to key market areas, while at other times they rely on “partnerships” with international schools. Nor should one forget that many international students actually come from Canada, having taken senior high school at either a private or public institution in Canada.
The change in strategies has changed the nature of international enrolment for the universities and puts the government attention in context. First, the concept of internationalization of the student body has shifted in emphasis from graduate to undergraduate populations. Second, despite uneven regional distribution, more and more universities see the expansion of international undergraduate numbers as a priority. The implications for the Canadian university will be the subject of my next column.
Doug Owram is deputy chancellor and principal of UBC Okanagan. He is also a Canadian historian and member of the Royal Society of Canada.