Economics is not the only reason for internationalisation

The Canadian government recently released Building on Success: International Education Strategy (2019-2024), a comprehensive plan for growing the international education sector in Canada. The second report of its kind within the past decade, it was generated by Global Affairs Canada, Employment and Social Development Canada and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, all working in close partnership with the provinces and important stakeholders across the country.

The strategy provides a stabilising influence or force in a decentralised and often chaotic international education world where stakeholders operate mostly independently with diverging goals and objectives.

In particular, the new strategy aims to develop the country’s international education sector by increasing international student flows from non-traditional sending countries, by expanding study abroad and intercultural learning opportunities for Canadian and permanent resident students and by ensuring there is both class and cultural diversity among the international student population.

Unlike its predecessor, the new strategy highlights a CA$147.9 million (US$112 million) budget allocated over a five-year span to resource initiatives designed, among other things, to expand the list of international student sending/feeder countries, to increase study abroad opportunities for Canadian students, allocating marketing dollars to grow the sector’s recruitment efforts, to boost the number of scholarships for international students and to modernise immigration processes.

Overall the influx of new cash into the sector aims to increase economic prosperity.

Global competition for international students

The new strategy is the first real evidence that supports the idea that more global competition for international students and a growing desire to capture greater pieces of the international education pie will lead to more cross-sector partnerships between government, business, education and NGO actors.

This is especially true in Canada where the responsibility for overseeing the education sector is handed to the provinces, a phenomenon that necessitates cross-sector schemes and activities that are capable of bringing together the resources and expertise needed to be competitive in the global marketplace.

The federal government’s new strategy reflects a deep understanding of this reality in its aim to invite ongoing input from the provinces, K-12, NGOs and business stakeholders. The reciprocal determinism at the heart of the cross-sector partnership ensures local stakeholders or actors retain the ability to influence the strategy’s objectives according to emerging needs and challenges.

Economics above all else

The government has based justification for expanding the international education sector on both economic and sociocultural rationales. The economic rationale is most visible in how the document conceptualises both prosperity and success.

Prosperity is defined predominantly in economic terms, with students’ potential to add to Canadian innovation and to contribute to revenue and student recruitment, and is based in part on past contributions to the Canadian economy. This was somewhere in the neighbourhood of CA$21.6 billion in 2018, something which is highlighted for emphasis in the report.

Even study abroad opportunities for Canadian students, intercultural competency and global cross-cultural connections and partnerships serve a subservient role to broader economic goals and objectives.

Even though Canadian values such as peace, diversity, a welcoming atmosphere and freedom all appear in the strategy as named catalysts for sparking Canadian innovation and economic prosperity, they appear only as a means to an economic end. When economic concerns become predominant, even values can be hijacked and put to work for economic ends.

The government’s ongoing reliance on an economic rationale is problematic because it marginalises non-economic concerns. The implications of the plan are significant for non-economic issues or concerns which are deserving of attention but are swept aside by the sheer force of strong enthusiasm for profits and financial gain.

In this economic purview, investment in local infrastructure that should take priority does not happen and sophisticated schemes that should be developed to support international student integration and a focus on the benefits resulting from students’ time abroad tend to disappear from internationalisation agendas.

Appropriate appreciation for the time and critical reflection needed for the transformative moments that can result from intercultural experience never happens when values and intercultural or sociocultural factors become subservient to economic goals.

Practised critical reflection is integral for the development of intercultural competency, not just exposure to different cultural ideas and experiences. To be authentically transformative, intercultural understanding takes time and serious long-term commitment. It involves moments of wrestling with personal biases and prejudice.


Another casualty of the growing dominance of the economic rationale in internationalisation is accessibility. Today, the United States, Canada, Great Britain and Australia all require medical exams as part of their permanent residency application. While the new strategy underlines a pathway to citizenship for international students, students must go through a cumbersome process that not only subjects their bodies to interrogation but also subjects them to processes than can drag on for months and even years.

The interrogation of students’ bodies sits uneasily with Canada’s professed values of openness, peace and hospitality. The government’s continued reliance on a medical model for determining immigration eligibility is an implicit endorsement of an able-bodied economic immigration rationale.

Overall, while the policy is a significant improvement from its predecessor, its focus on economic concerns is both insufficient and challenging. An ecological framework is needed to serve as a bridge to translate what appears in the strategy into ideas that can have traction on the ground. Such a relational view might bring into clear focus issues such as trust, risk-taking, setbacks, resistance, biases and prejudice, resilience, compliance issues and values, all of which frame relationships that impact internationalisation.

Abu Kamara is a higher education researcher and commentator. E-mail: Twitter: @Abu__Kamara.