As many of you will have heard by now (since I’m slow to comment on these things), recently the Canadian government released another strategy piece regarding ongoing efforts to recruit international students to Canada. There’s been some great commentary on this already, and I can’t add much to what others have said. Much of the criticism I would agree with, given the nature of the issues involved in branding, recruitment, and retention/graduation (though that last piece doesn’t seem to have made it onto the table for discussion). But I have a few points to add about the practical elements of this plan as a communication strategy.
While there is mention of the idea that Canadian students should also study abroad, the focus of this latest plan remains on the recruitment of international students to Canada with the dual goal of a) receiving economic benefits from their tuition and other expenditures, and b) increasing national human capital by having the “best and brightest” students stay in Canada and gain citizenship.
None of this is surprising if you’ve been following along with Canada’s policies on immigration and the past attempts to make forays into organized international student recruitment. A few years back, Canadian institutions and governments started clueing in to what other countries (primarily in the “developed”, Western world) have been aware of for a long time. Since at least 2008 the Government of Canada has been making attempts to organize a market offensive, and there’s been much flinging about of terms like “branding” and “strategy”. But Canada is late to the game as it were, and the playing field is already crowded with competition – which makes “standing out” even more of a challenge.
Setting aside for a moment the issue of treating Canada as a commodity (which I discussed in a past post), something that really stood out for me was a lack of foresight in terms of the communications component. The government plans “to “brand” Canada to maximum effect” using “customized marketing strategies”, yet it allocated $5 million for this purpose. This might not sound ungenerous until you read that the “target markets” are… Brazil, China, India (three of the “BRIC” nations), Mexico, North Africa and the Middle East, and Vietnam, to which we will market Canada while maintaining its existing appeal to “France, the UK, Germany, Japan, Korea and the US”. That’s a very diverse set of markets – almost, one could say, not particularly targeted – and each one will require a tailored approach if Canada is to “maximize” the possibility of recruiting students. Additionally, according to prior research from last year, Canada’s “brand” is mushy in at least three of the proposed markets. That means there will be extra effort required at the outset simply to make Canada “visible” as an option, and “[leveraging] Canada’s bilingual, multicultural identity” may not be enough to get the job done.
Maybe it’s my communications background talking, but to me this doesn’t sound like it’s going to be a low-cost effort. Successful branding and marketing takes a lot of research, especially when you’re expecting to develop “market plans focused on, and tailored to, each priority education market”, that are “customized to resonate with each key market and audience at home and abroad”.
The question I have is this: how will these things happen when Canada already has a clear issue with coordinating internal players to produce a coordinated externally-directed effort? In other words, there’s no department or ministry of education to set out the line on this issue, so everything takes more work. Canada isn’t like Australia or New Zealand with their more centralized governance of education; and it also isn’t like the U.S. and U.K, nations that have significant long-standing prestige to build on. So will Canadian governments (provincial and federal) and institutions be able to pull together for the sake of marketing Canada as a desirable place to study and live? How exactly will we achieve “improved coordination of marketing efforts and objectives among governments and stakeholders”?
There are also going to have to be decisions made about what kind of students Canada wants to recruit, and this will have an effect on marketing strategies. Sure, we all want the most promising, academically-able students; but isn’t there something of a conflict between trying to get the right number of “bums in seats”, and trying also to poach the best students from the international “talent market”? Can these goals be reconciled?
This latest document describes some lofty objectives for Canadian image-building for the purpose of student recruitment, but doesn’t carry through in terms of setting out how those are to be achieved in practical terms. As others have pointed out, this is not a “strategy” because having goals is not the same as having a thoughtful, well-researched and adequately-funded plan to actually achieve those goals. If a strategy of postsecondary internationalization is really “our blueprint to attract talent and prepare our country for the 21st century [and] ensure our future prosperity” then I think we have a lot more work to do.