Call to double foreign students signals a fundamental policy shift

A new report urging Canadian universities to nearly double international student enrolment by 2022 signals a fundamental policy change in Canada.

The report, released last week, recommends that Canada increase the number of foreign students from 240,000 in 2011 to 450,000 by 2022.

The government-appointed panel led by Amit Chakma, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Western Ontario, also laid out a blueprint for how the federal government ought to support universities in their recruitment efforts.

What makes this report a change in direction from Canada’s current approach to foreign students is twofold.

First, because post-secondary education is a provincial responsibility, the federal government typically avoids such discussions. In fact, in 2006 then-Treasury Board chair John Baird, who is now Minister of Foreign Affairs, pushed to remove the federal government from all involvement in higher education aside from research.

Second, the fact that the report was presented to Ed Fast, Minister of International Trade, rather than the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development, illustrates how foreign students are now considered a key piece of Canada’s global economic strategy, rather than an issue for universities to handle.

Benefits of international students

The report, International Education: A Key Driver of Canada’s Future Prosperity, argues that not only do Canadian universities and domestic students benefit from a large international student population, but so does Canada as a whole.

“Attracting the best international students will ensure that the world sees Canada as the place to be for top talent, global partnerships and business opportunities,” Chakma said, while presenting the report in Halifax on 15 August.

According to the report, international students who choose to stay boost the economy by adding to Canada’s human capital. (Chakma himself falls into this category, having moved to Canada from his native Bangladesh to pursue a masters degree in chemical engineering from the University of British Columbia.)

Moreover, those who return to their birth country become ambassadors to Canada, important sources of business ties and goodwill between countries. Finally, the report argues that drawing students and researchers from a larger pool is only going to attract better talent and improve the quality of universities.


In the past, international students were primarily considered a source of revenue for universities. Having argued the wider benefits to Canada as a whole, the report makes the case for more federal government involvement in international recruitment.

Recommendations include creating a Council on International Education and Research to advise government, providing funds for scholarship programmes and developing a national brand to promote education.

The report has been welcomed by the university community, which has long called for a national approach to foreign student recruitment.

“Canada must brand itself as a partner of choice in higher education and research,” wrote Stephen Toope, president of the University of British Columbia and the chair of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, in a July 2012 paper.

He singled out Asian students and researchers, in particular, as the people Canada needs to recruit.

Organising recruitment efforts on a provincial basis is confusing to potential students, University of Alberta President Indira Samarasekera told the Globe and Mail. “Students don’t necessarily want to go to California or Massachusetts; they want to go the United States. We need to do the same for Canada.”

Boost to the economy

Another report, commissioned by the federal government and published in May, provides insight into why the government is viewing international students as an economic boon. The report estimated that international students spent $8 billion in 2010, up from $6.5 billion in 2008.

“Overall, the total amount that international students spend in Canada is greater than our export of unwrought aluminium ($6 billion), and even greater than our export of helicopters, airplanes and spacecraft ($6.9 billion) to all other countries,” stated the report, written by consultant Roslyn Kunin.

If education is considered an export, its value is striking compared to traditional exports to particular countries. Education accounts for 44% of exports to Saudi Arabia, 28% to India and 19% to Korea.

A new look at fees

Both this report and last week’s panel recommendations suggest that universities shouldn’t necessarily hit foreign students with the highest possible tuition fees.

Recognising that foreign students bring more to Canada than just the dollars they spend during their education, these reports urge government to create scholarship programmes and re-examine the practice of differential tuition.

But because most universities in Canada are publicly funded, increasing foreign students and lowering their tuition fees could be a sensitive political issue. Many Canadians consider access to post-secondary education a right.

Questions have been raised about whether increasing international students takes away seats from domestic students. For example, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty attracted criticism during the last election when he proposed a scholarship programme specifically for foreign students.