Many believe that this is Canada’s moment – an opportunity to increase the inflow of international talent into Canadian higher education. Politics and economics have been part of this narrative.
Politically, the rise of neo-nationalist populism tied to xenophobic sentiment in the United States and the United Kingdom have cast Canada in a bright light. Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has vocally espoused Canada’s openness to the world, very publicly welcoming refugees since last year while the United States, the United Kingdom and parts of Europe recoiled from the influx of immigrants.
Canada has been called a “beacon of liberalism” in the Western world by the Economist.
A weakened Canadian dollar, after years of parity with the US greenback, has also made study in Canada less expensive than south of the border. Coupled with generally lower tuition fees than those of American universities, a devalued currency has enhanced the purchasing power of students from the US who have been courted by Canadian campuses, as well as those from other countries considering a North American university.
Canadian universities, too, have taken steps to position themselves as part of a welcoming Canada. Some have taken initiatives to support refugees who have landed in Canada, and others have accommodated late applications from international students joining or studying in American universities who had their plans shattered by the travel ban.
Altogether, these factors have fuelled great optimism about Canadian universities’ position in the international higher education landscape. Based on reports from university admissions offices on applications this year, an article in a major daily asserted: "Canadian universities will welcome unprecedented numbers of international students this fall.”
Calls have also been made for Canadian universities to take advantage of the current climate to enhance international faculty recruitment.
A longer-term perspective
As much as these short-term developments have shifted expectations and discourse, recent research I carried out with Emma Sabzalieva has shown that long-term trends have been demonstrably more stable and enduring.
Canada was a late starter in the competition for international students, but over the past decade and a half their numbers have increased exponentially. International enrolment in higher education grew by 226% between 2000-01 and 2013-14, from around 38,000 to nearly 126,000. Although from a much smaller base, this rate of growth was much larger than that of the other major host countries – the US, the UK and Australia.
Interestingly, the long-term trend of expansion has held over the years, despite currency fluctuations and major economic and political events abroad. The share of the international student population increased from around 5% to about 11% in the same period, only experiencing a slight decline in 2006 relative to 2005, and continuing a steady growth otherwise.
The surge that has been reported in international applications in 2017 cannot be divorced from these long-term trends. Certainly, this ongoing growing demand for study in the country cannot be attributed to single causes, such as currency valuation or a greater recruitment effort by Canadian institutions.
Furthermore, for all the current enthusiasm with Canadian liberalism, its translation into practical policy measures is not immediate. Two policy frameworks impinging on the recruitment and retention of students and scholars have made internationalising academia more challenging in recent years.
In mid-2014, the previous Conservative government made changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program which universities use to bring new international faculty and staff hires into the country. The changes have raised the burden of proof for Canadian employers to ascertain that a foreign employee is needed for an opening. While not aiming at higher education specifically, these changes have made foreign faculty hiring more cumbersome and costly.
Early in the following year, the Conservatives introduced a new visa system to streamline the management of applications for permanent residency. Called ‘Express Entry’, the system included a two-stage process intended to manage applications faster to expedite immigrants’ transition into the labour market.
This system has been widely criticised for creating constraints for international students who seek permanent residency and the Liberal government promptly committed to a review of the system, which was implemented in late 2016. The effects of these changes will begin to be felt as the expected enlarged cohort of international students comes into the country this year.
As for the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, no such reviews have been announced yet.
Canada might indeed stand out as a beacon of liberalism in years to come, but that will likely not be a game changer for the internationalisation of the student and faculty bodies in academia. For one, Canadian faculty are already highly international and have historically been so. As for students, the steadier increase we have witnessed since 2000 is a more probable scenario.
Creso Sá is director of the Centre for the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education and professor of higher education at the University of Toronto, Canada. Twitter @creso_sa. He was speaking at the World Education Services and Boston College Center for International Higher Education Summer Seminar held on 22-23 June at Boston College, USA, on the impact of nationalism on internationalisation of higher education.
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