International strategy aims to double foreign students

Canada’s higher education sector has welcomed the country’s first comprehensive International Education Strategy – released by the government last week – that aims, among other things, to double the number of foreign students.

Announcing the new strategy last Wednesday, International Trade Minister Ed Fast accepted that Canada could profit more from the lucrative global international student market.

A government document admitted: “The United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Germany and France all attracted more international students than Canada.”

The strategy plans to double Canada’s international student base from 239,131 in 2011 to more than 450,000 by 2022 – without reducing domestic recruitment.

It involves targeting the best potential student export markets with branding, marketing cooperation initiatives and immigration reforms. Fast said: “We are ensuring that Canada stays ahead of the curve in a global environment that is fiercely competitive.”

Targeting markets

A key element of the scheme is targeting markets: the plan will focus Canadian recruitment efforts on Brazil, India, China, Vietnam, Mexico, North Africa and the Middle East including Turkey.

These markets are populous, relatively wealthy and in some cases have significant numbers of students who speak French, who may want to attend Francophone universities in Canada.

That said, the plan stressed that this must not detract from existing successful recruitment of foreign students from France, Britain, Germany, Japan, South Korea and the United States.

Branding and marketing is a critical part of the plan, with the federal government working with provinces and universities to develop market plans. These, said the strategy, would be “focused on, and tailored to, each priority education market”.

Markets would be targeted with digital and hard copy materials, from printed flyers to social media bulletins, written for potential students, parents and student counsellors.

Promotional programmes would be coordinated, according to the strategy, with government bodies, universities and colleges working together. Outreach would be helped by Canada appointing economic diplomats to help recruit students in target markets.

Such promotional work would be underpinned by a commitment from the government to continue promoting student and faculty exchanges with universities in chosen countries, along with joint research, curriculum development, course delivery and academic and skills development programmes.

Economy and immigration

International undergraduates pay around three times what Canadians pay in fees per year – on average of CAD5,700 (US$5,200), against CAD19,500 for foreign students – and the government calculates that attracting more international students could generate around 86,000 new jobs and give an annual CAD10 billion boost to the economy.

On immigration, the plan highlights upcoming reforms to Canada’s International Student Programme where Canadian provinces and territories designate educational institutions receiving international students.

This would ease immigration controls, “making it easier for those international students attending designated educational institutions to work during their studies”.

Speaking to University World News Jennifer Humphries, vice-president of the Canadian Bureau for International Education, or CBIE, said the strategy reinforced resources to Immigration Canada authorities to ensure that students had smooth access procedures and clear information. “This is critical.”

A relatively new area was the work that Immigration Canada had engaged the education sector in, in terms of professional development with regard to immigration regulations.

Over the years, said Humphries, international student advisors had honed their skills and knowledge to enable them to provide immigration information to students such as how to renew study permits and access off-campus work programmes. “At the same time we weave into that students’ academic and social requirements.”

Now advisors have to go through a certification process to give full immigration advice.

“We’re working with Immigration Canada and with the certifying body to develop a new strand that will enable international student advisors to give student-related advice without going through a 500-hour programme. Many of them already have what they need, and perhaps need just a little bit more knowledge of the regulations,” she said.

Positive responses

Paul Davidson, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, said the plan was “an important advance in branding Canada as a destination of choice for top students and researchers around the world.”

He added: “Having students from around the world on Canadian university campuses enriches the educational experience of all students.”

CBIE’s Jennifer Humphries described the strategy as a milestone. “I think it is a sign of serious progress in terms of international education.”

“When you look at the fact that we are a country with provincial and territorial responsibility for education, including higher education, the fact that the provinces and territories have signed on to this is a major hurdle overcome.”

The strategy commits the federal government to discuss joint ‘education and knowledge missions’ with provinces and territories that target priority countries.

The strategy built on a report by the government-commissioned Advisory Panel on Canada’s International Education Strategy, chaired by Dr Amit Chakma, president of Western University.

And it followed a federal pilot programme called ‘Edu-Canada’, designed to promote Canadian higher education abroad: “Over the course of the pilot, the number of international students in Canada increased by 51%,” said a government note.

What’s in, what’s not

Humphries said the original panel report had 14 recommendations. It leant towards talent acquisition and some of the more competitive aspects of international education.

“That being said, it also did treat and speak to the need for Canadians to learn about the world and to participate in the world. Perhaps not as heavily as everybody had hoped, but it actually set a target of 50,000 awards for study abroad by 2022. Which some of us thought was laudable – not enough but laudable to set a target.”

The final strategy accepted many of the recommendations – nine were completely accepted, four were partly accepted and one was not accepted – Humphries believed.

The one not accepted was the creation of an advisory council for international education.

It appeared that the government did not want another structure, and that CBIE and the Canadian Consortium for International Education – which represents the CBIE, universities and other international education-related bodies – would remain the advisors. “So they did accept that recommendation too, but in a different way."

The new strategy commits Ottawa to consult with the many organisations represented in the consortium and a National Education Marketing Roundtable about rolling out the plan.

Among three recommendations not fully accepted, Humphries said the one that stood out was the target for study abroad by Canadians. While the principle of the need to grow study abroad had been accepted, the target was not.

More positively, there was recognition of the need for good metrics to measure and monitor targets – on education abroad, work abroad, internships abroad and so on.

Canada had high quality education and a lot to offer international students, Humphries continued. But there were things that needed to be done, such as ensuring that international students had access to financial assistance if they needed it.

“I think we need to look at not always being about prestige programmes. We need to draw in students from countries and from families who cannot afford it. At the institutional level a lot of that is happening, but federal investment and provincial government investment would be appreciated as well.”

Also, doubling student numbers was ambitious, and should be monitored in terms of the country’s ability to support the students.

“I don’t have any particular doubt about our capacity level, we have a fairly flexible capacity; we can grow our education. But what we do need to look at is are we providing the services? We’re very good at service provision, but we need to resource it up, significantly, to serve 450,000 students at all these various levels.”

“But we have a springboard to work on and I think it’s a huge step forward for Canada. In fact, we’ve been asking for a national strategy for 25 years."

* Photo credit: iStock