Developing Canada’s first international education strategy

On 14 August the final report of a panel charged with advising the Canadian government on its first international education strategy was released. The report provides a roadmap for achieving the panel’s vision for international education, including doubling the number of full-time international students in Canada from 239,000 in 2011 to more than 450,000 over the next decade.

The report was released by the minister for international trade, so the the fact that it focuses largely on the economic advantages of increasing Canada’s international education activities is not surprising, although the panel does not simply see international students as a source of revenue.

Given the demographics of the Canadian population, the Canadian labour market needs to attract top talent through immigration; international students are both a source of revenue and potential citizens. Another goal of the strategy is to increase the international education of Canadian students by expanding mobility programmes.

Canada has already established a moderately successful track record of attracting international students, but this has largely been a function of the work of individual schools and post-secondary institutions.

International education sits on an uncomfortable fencepost between education policy, which is the responsibility of the provinces, and foreign affairs, the responsibility of the federal government.

The fact that several federal government departments have control over different pieces of the policy puzzle has further complicated matters, and international education issues have sometimes been lost in disputes over issues of territory.

With this in mind, the report focuses an entire chapter on coordination and recommends the creation of a Council on International Education and Research to provide advice to the multiple federal ministries associated with this policy area.

While the panel recognises the delicate balancing act between federal and provincial areas of authority, it assigns primary responsibility for the operational management of the strategy to the federal Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, a position that may be hard for the provinces to accept.

Many aspects of the strategy will be difficult to implement without the support and engagement of the Council of Ministers of Education, the national committee of provincial and territorial ministers of education and higher education.

Strategy reasonable and attainable

However, if the challenging issue of coordination can be worked out, the strategy articulated by the panel seems both reasonable and attainable.

To date, Canada’s share of the international education market has been obtained in the absence of a national strategy or any substantive government investments in marketing.

The panel recommends major investments in international student scholarship programmes, student mobility programmes for domestic students, and marketing. It recommends that the federal government co-fund 8,000 new undergraduate scholarships for international students, and student mobility programmes for 50,000 Canadian students (in both cases leveraging support from the provinces, institutions and private donors).

It recommends a focused branding strategy, including relabelling existing scholarships, and investments in e-communication and marketing. It also recommends investments in staffing to ensure that student visas are approved in a more timely fashion and that embassy staff receive the training they need to understand Canada’s educational offerings and pathways.

While doubling the number of international students may seem ambitious at first glance, the panel is actually recommending a strategy to maintain Canada’s current market share (roughly 5% of international tertiary students) in the context of a rapidly expanding global market and increasing competition.

The view that the goal is reasonable is reinforced by the fact that the number of international students studying in Canada has increased by 36% since 2007 with little nationally coordinated support or encouragement. The panel recommends a focused approach to recruitment and provides a list of targeted national markets.

The proposed strategy is not without its problems.

The report correctly notes that Canada’s advantage is that it offers a high quality of education at a reasonable cost in a safe, multicultural environment.

The historic assumption that the quality of an undergraduate education is roughly the same across Canadian universities has meant that there has been limited pressure for a comprehensive approach to quality assessment, and the decentralised nature of higher education policy has left issues of quality in the hands of the provinces.

The report recommends that the provinces work together to develop a national quality assessment framework to ensure that the across-the-board quality of Canadian programmes is maintained – a recommendation that is far easier to write than implement.

Other challenging issues include the relationship between international education and internationally focused research, and the impact of phasing out the international Canadian Studies initiative that has long played an ambassadorial role for Canadian international academic relations.

Canada may well be one of the very last industrialised nations to develop an international education strategy, but the panel report provides a map for a reasonable, pragmatic approach.

The key question remains one of coordination: will the federal and provincial governments be able to work together to implement a strategic agenda?

* Glen A Jones is the Ontario research chair in postsecondary education policy and measurement at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. Information on his research can be found at