There’s a strong case to be made about the benefits to Canada of attracting more international students to our universities and colleges. And setting an aspirational goal of doubling the number of those students, from around 240,000 in 2011 (according to the federal government), to more than 450,000 by 2022, is a fine idea – provided universities have the additional resources necessary to welcome these students and to help them succeed.
So, from that perspective, I take no issue with the federal government’s recently announced International Education Strategy. Others have panned it but I leave it to them to make their case.
Throughout, the strategy makes numerous mentions of what an increase in international students would mean for Canada economically – how it will “create new jobs,” “address skills and labour shortages” and lead to “economic growth and long-term prosperity.” The document further points out that attracting more international students will “provide an annual boost to the Canadian economy of almost $10 billion; and generate approximately $910 million in new tax revenues.”
Again, all fine things, in general. Who isn’t for increased economic activity? And, let’s be honest, education is a service – an economic good, a commodity – that is bought and sold on the international market. Canada has a good product to sell, and why shouldn’t it market this internationally?
However, I think those in the higher-education community would feel more comfortable if the messaging were a bit more nuanced. What of the non-economic benefits to Canadians – the cultural benefits, the increase in openness and tolerance, the personal connections? And, more importantly, what of the benefits to the international students themselves? For this to succeed, it must be a mutually beneficial exchange.
Perhaps, some would say, that message is implicit in the document. The strategy does point out the numerous advantages to studying in Canada: a welcoming, safe and multicultural country offering a “high-quality education at an attractive price,” high-quality research facilities, and so on. I just wish the pitch didn’t sound so mercantile.
As an aside, I did read grumblings in social media and elsewhere that there was no better indication of this slant than the fact that the document opened with a note from the minister of international trade. To that, I would point out two things: there is no federal minister of education, so who else should it be? As well, let’s keep in mind that education is a provincial responsibility, and the federal government is no doubt keenly aware that it must tread carefully on this turf. Pitching international education as a trade issue thus makes sense, as that is indisputably an area of federal concern.
The document ended with a quote from Karen McBride, president and CEO of the Canadian Bureau for International Education. It reads in part: “importantly,” the new international strategy “points to a broader vision of the value of international education for Canada and for our partners around the world, as international education builds the diplomacy of knowledge and gives the next generation of Canadian and international students the tools they need to contribute to global society in meaningful ways.”
That is an admirable sentiment which I heartily endorse. Let’s hope.