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Speculative Diction

Canada for Sale


A recent article in University World News argued that internationalization has “corrupted” higher education in various ways. In spite of the strong term, I found myself agreeing with much of the article, and it also made me think more about how most of the articles I see about internationalization seem to focus on its economic aspects. If–as has also been argued–there are so many social and cultural benefits to recruiting international students, why then is there such a strong focus in most arguments on the financial benefits for universities and nations? What are the potential effects of this focus?

Internationalization, and particularly the recruitment of international students, doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Universities in Canada, at least, must deal with a context in which government funding, relative to institutional expansion, has been insufficient. The solution for distributing scarce resources that’s been implemented in many jurisdictions has been the creation of (quasi-) markets in which universities compete against each other for financial support, including through student recruitment (which brings tuition revenue). This increases the amount of branding and advertising that universities use, and it encourages the student to think and behave like a consumer making choices about educational “products”.

For this consumer-driven model of education, there has always been the unique double bind wherein functionally, for the university, students are both resources and products. On the one hand, students bring capital in the form of either academic prestige (recruitment of elite performers who generate symbolic capital) or tuition dollars. On the other hand, once they graduate, students themselves are an “outcome” that reflects back on the university and on its capacity for providing “quality education” and producing the right sorts of graduates for the current economy.

With international recruitment in a context of reduced funding, we’re now seeing a scenario wherein students themselves are increasingly imagined as commodities in a global field, by universities but also by the state. Students aren’t the only ones becoming commodified in this environment; marketization brings competition between universities, but now between nations as well. As with the universities, Canada itself becomes a “destination”, a product that must be appropriately branded to encourage the recruitment of more student-clients, competing primarily with other wealthy Anglophone nations such as the UK, the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

The primary targets for this recruitment are the so-called BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) and MIST (Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey) nations, which have been framed as “emerging” markets. Given this context, as I’ve discussed in past posts, changes to policies in various areas show how Canada has attempted to situate itself through branding as “top of mind” in an international market for higher education. Since education is technically provincial jurisdiction in Canada, the need for a coherent national strategy is seen as more urgent and is also more difficult to implement. When framed almost solely in terms of economic benefits, this argument can be made more easily.

What happens when we start to treat even the nation-state as a product for sale, as something to be branded for a target audience? We should expect similar effects as in other sold “experiences”, including of course education. Often, the promised version of the item is presented as accessible to everyone in a similar way. As with education, people’s experiences in a new country will be highly variable depending partly on who they are and where they come from themselves. A highly glossed presentation also frequently downplays the possibility of having a negative experience; if something negative does happen, it’s now more likely to be addressed from the position of needing to maintain Canada’s image.

Once the market for university education becomes an international one, some students–but not all–become global shoppers. This issue of accessibility is not generally addressed, but in truth the costs of travelling overseas for an education are beyond what many families can really afford, even with scholarship programs available in some cases. While consumerist approaches tend to (perversely) present such things as if they’re available to all, clearly not all students are part of this “market” and thus the marketing is implicitly targeting some students over others–i.e. those with enough money or merit (or preferably, both).

Even where arguments are made for sending Canadian students overseas, these often involve turning students into ideal “global citizens”, ambassadors who can help build the economy of the future in Canada through their ability to understand other cultures. It’s interesting that in some ways the non-economic goals are in conflict with economic ones, because (for example) the international “flow” of knowledge described in this report is countered by the many restrictions on knowledge that are upheld by the state and by the university itself, and by the limits to accessibility that I described above.

If our underlying model is one wherein students are conceptualized as commodities, then we may also fail to consider adequately the human side of this vast equation. These include the results of brain drain from nations with fewer educational resources and “human capital” (especially given the link between international students and immigration), and the effects of policies on some of those who are already here. It’s likely we’ll also see more forms of corruption involving international student recruitment, as that industry becomes more established.

Considering the vulnerable position in which students place themselves when they take such a leap, the focus of this discussion–including in policy–needs to be drawn back to the benefits of international experiences for students, and the ways those experiences can be facilitated best by universities and governments. Since the tendency to focus on economics often leads to narrow or dubious policy outcomes, maybe instead of emphasizing how much we can get out of each student, we should think more about what each student could gain–and which students gain–from their experiences in Canada.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. S C / February 12, 2013 at 17:37

    Good article and as one who has lived many of the same expereinces, I can definitely relate to it, although I find the tone a tad too negative.
    As for brain drain, many of the countries (PRChina, Iran, South Korea, Russia in particular) are actually in a ‘brain overflow’ situation, sending out their excess young human capital to underpopulated lands. Sounds like a win-win to me, if managed properly and judiciously.
    The real cause of worry would be the proliferation of fradulent and/or questionable instiutions (e.g. ESL Colleges and short-term technical schools of dubious quality) that would jump on the internationalization bandwagon, fail to deliver the goods and bring shame on Canada and the Canadian education brand.

  2. M C / February 13, 2013 at 19:01

    I think you’re opening the door to very useful discussions here, but I also agree with SC that the tone here (and more importantly in the UWN article you’re riffing off of) relies on a couple of value-laden terms.

    It would have been good to clarify that much of the pressure towards PSE internationalization in Canada is happening in the context of provincially approved seat expansions as well as reduced funding. As such, these twin forces appear to be an attempt by politicians to get international students (who pay much higher tuition rates) to make up for the declining provincial subsidies to the universities. This trade-off seems a bit more acceptable to the larger universities because they a) don’t have many options, and b) can “nudge” a bit more budget into marketing a strong product overseas.

    This is clearly not as wise a path as funding PSE at consistent per-student rates, but it’s certainly better than the crippling funding situation in many US states (e.g. California, Washington).

    Nevertheless, those extreme cases where both Democrats and Republicans at the US state level are willing to play punching-bag politics with university support are the sites where we can most clearly see the outcomes of these policies: larger schools lose marginally, and diversify their funding sources to cover some of what the state-funding has taken away. Smaller schools, however — especially those in more remote areas — are absolutely battered by these policies, reducing both the quality and accessibility of education in those areas.

    According to one source, Washington State University (Pullman, WA — not to be confused with UW in Seattle) has lost 52 percent of its state support during the last four years.

    And though its funding is more diversified, UW published the following warning recently: “The University of Washington sustained a $207 million (32.5%) state funding cut for the 2011-13 biennium. After a third straight year of deep state budget cuts, the UW has lost half of its state funding in a very short period of time.”

    I’d hate to see that happen anywhere in Canada. It’s sad enough that it’s happening anywhere.

    The smoking gun here, though, is not the pursuit of internationalization itself, and the complicated set of problems and benefits that it opens up. Brain drain notwithstanding, internationalization and the creation of a more cosmopolitan atmosphere, sharing interest and expertise, students and faculty across national lines, are perfectly admirable goals to the extent that they don’t harm accessibility for those who opt to study in their own state, province or city.

    The root, and our real worry, should be the reduction in provincial or state subsidies to education. It would be nice to have a clearer recognition that every government that engages in this practice is shooting its own electorate in the foot. If states and provinces have to carry some deficits to ensure their education systems aren’t compromised, it’s still a smarter investment than cutting subsidies which so forcefully improve social health and prosperity in the long term.

    • Melonie Fullick / February 13, 2013 at 20:01

      “It would have been good to clarify that much of the pressure towards PSE internationalization in Canada is happening in the context of provincially approved seat expansions as well as reduced funding. As such, these twin forces appear to be an attempt by politicians to get international students (who pay much higher tuition rates) to make up for the declining provincial subsidies to the universities.”

      Exactly, thank you. The recent expansion in Ontario is a case in point.

  3. P D / February 21, 2013 at 08:30

    The reality is that most institutions need the revenue from international students to sustain their programs. This is not a bad thing. Recruiting international students is not that hard to do compared to attracting more Canadian students from a shrinking demographic. Regionally, many are trying to attract a larger share of a shrinking pie, whereas internationally the pie contnues to grow.

    The two challenges to universities are on the one hand how to better support our international students so that they are successful, and second how do we take full advantage of this wonderful opportunity of having such diversity of voices on our campuses. This should be energizing institutions as never before.