Earlier this year, Canadian graduate schools responded quickly to offer their support to researchers and grad students impacted by U.S. President Donald Trump’s travel ban. Our schools offered to extend application deadlines, provide workspaces and grant visiting-researcher status to stranded students and academics. These and other actions signified a deep commitment to the tenets of diversity, inclusivity and global citizenry that underpin graduate education.
But there is more at play here. This commitment stems from an understanding that diverse perspectives, global insight and intercultural awareness add value to and enrich the learning experience for all students and, ultimately, to research outcomes.
A substantial number of international students undertake graduate studies in Canada. They come here from across the globe to study, learn, conduct research and become a part of our communities. The most recent Statistics Canada data (PDF) indicate that over 30 percent of Canada’s doctoral students are non-Canadian. Not surprisingly, universities invest considerable resources to aid international students with the transition by delivering English (and French) as a second language courses and offering, to all graduate students, various support services, workshops and training to promote academic, professional and personal success.
Attracting international talent into our PhD programs forms global connections and aligns with many universities’ international strategies. In a global knowledge economy, it’s imperative that we invest in training highly qualified individuals regardless of their country of origin. Indeed, upon completing a PhD degree, more than half of international graduates indicate that they intend to become Canadians and contribute to our highly skilled workforce, according to a 2015 survey (PDF) by the Canadian Bureau for International Education. Those who return to their home countries often maintain their connections to Canada, becoming ambassadors for Canadian higher education.
Casting the net globally to bring in top talent is very much about advancing knowledge, technology and innovation – the research capital from which we all benefit. According to data from the U15 group of universities, Canada’s research-intensive institutions provide financial packages to PhD students, domestic and international, averaging $27,000 annually for four years to support their education. Moreover, graduate schools and international offices are committed to forming agreements with foreign governments and agencies that provide scholarships to PhD degree-seeking international students studying in Canada (tuition plus living expenses for up to four years) to increase the total amount of funding available for all students. These practices contribute to making Canada a higher-education destination of choice.
As an aside, universities are familiar with the argument that because the current average time to degree completion exceeds four years, the funding period should be extended (in year five, the average funding level drops by nearly $7,000). It is unlikely in today’s fiscal climate that the public purse would be favourably disposed to assisting graduate education beyond six years (master’s plus PhD). The knock-on effect of an institutional decision to do so would be a lowering of funding available during the four-year PhD program length.
A more fiscally responsible solution is to focus on moving the needle towards reducing the average time to degree completion through program structure reform, the use of milestones, and the promotion of best practices and services that support academic success and progress. Universities are actively doing this. Students generally want to finish their degrees in a timely manner, international students want to avoid seeking visa extensions, and all want to get on with their future careers and begin to experience the return on their investment in advanced education.
Canada’s universities are committed to high-quality advanced education and have built a strong reputation for offering students the services and supports they need to position them for success post-degree. The international demand for Canadian PhD training has been very high for some time, and that demand looks to increase even further in reaction to Brexit and the policies of President Trump. Canada’s standing as a safe, welcoming and multicultural country contributes to its desirability among international PhD degree-seeking students.
Reforms to Canada’s Express Entry to facilitate the immigration process for international students post-graduation contribute to the appeal. But, reputation aside, it is our actions and behaviours that reflect our commitment to diversity and, perhaps more importantly, inclusivity. This is top of mind in our universities and communities as it is fundamental to our training of global leaders, thinkers and citizens.
Brenda Brouwer is president of the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies, and vice-provost and dean of the school of graduate studies at Queen’s University.