International Education Strategy leaves a lot to be desired

We don’t need repackaged targets; we need big ideas.

Embassy

Like many in the education sector, I was pleased when the government announced it would release its International Education Strategy. However, those of us looking forward to a comprehensive, innovative strategy to capitalize on Canada’s ninth-largest export industry were sorely disappointed.

When Canada’s International Education Strategy was released, we saw a repackaging of previous targets with few commitments and even fewer strategies.

International students are a centrepiece of the Canadian economy. As we move towards an increasingly globalized world with a focus on the knowledge economy, it has become clear that international education is key. In 2012, international education brought in $8.4 billion to the Canadian economy.

International students also bring much to their respective school communities, and Canadian post-secondary institutions have worked hard to establish an international reputation as high-quality, world-renowned education facilities. This reputation is well-earned. In 2012 we welcomed more than 100,000 international students to study at post-secondary institutions across the country. While in Canada, these students contribute their knowledge, skills and experience to the country, and our schools and communities are richer because of these contributions.

From report to reality

It’s clear that an International Education Strategy is long overdue. In 2012, an advisory panel made a series of important recommendations, including doubling the number of international students choosing to study in Canada by 2022, identifying target markets, improving access to grants and scholarships for international students and improving visa processing. All these recommendations make sense.

The International Education Strategy was the government’s opportunity to highlight its priorities from the commissioned report, and to demonstrate to Canadians—and to the world—how it proposes to move from recommendation to reality. Unfortunately, rather than build on the experts’ report, the government’s “strategy” simply reiterated their recommendations, without putting forward any new, innovative suggestions for how to achieve these ambitious targets.

Canada’s International Education Strategy commits the nation’s post-secondary institutions to doubling the number of international students from 239,131 in 2011 to more than 450,000 by 2022, without displacing Canadian students. This is a laudable goal, advanced by the advisory panel’s 2012 report. However, in the two years separating the advisory panel’s recommendations and the government’s report, the government was unable to put forward any suggestions on how our education sector would be able to attain this international interest in the face of fierce competition from other countries, or be able to accommodate such substantial expansion. This so-called strategy commits only $5 million of new funding per year to support its objectives, and otherwise details existing scholarships and initiatives.

Welcoming or aggravating?

Instead of welcoming international students, the government seems to be trying to aggravate them. For instance in 2008 the government launched a program under the Canada Experience Class to allow foreign students to apply from inside Canada for permanent resident status. It was a good idea and made us a more attractive place to study abroad. However in 2013 the government suddenly decided to cap the number of people who could even apply for permanent residency. Some international students who had already spent two years here would be simply out of luck.

The government followed this up with changes in Bill C-24, currently before the House of Commons, which will force international students with permanent residency to wait an additional two years to become citizens. These kinds of knee-jerk policy decisions, especially made retroactively for students already studying in Canada, make us a less attractive place to study.

There are a few simple, concrete steps this government could take to encourage international students to study in Canada. If international students are important to this government, then it should do everything it can to reduce barriers that keep potential students from coming to study in Canada. Last summer, the Conservative government, and, specifically, Treasury Board President Tony Clement, failed to quickly settle a labour dispute with Canada’s foreign service officers. As this fight continued throughout the summer, international students’ visa applications were stuck in a processing backlog. This self-inflicted injury put at risk Canada’s reputation as a preferred destination for international students. The International Education Strategy paid lip-service to student-mobility issues, but offered no concrete policies for ensuring that student visas are processed, particularly in the summer months leading up to the academic year.

I also believe there is an untapped market of potential international students at the high school level. In my own riding of Kingston and the Islands, the Limestone District School Board has recently been working to encourage secondary school students from India to study in Kingston. Unfortunately, they have recently experienced a 100 per cent rejection rate from Citizenship and Immigration Canada. I believe that international high school students studying in Canada would be ideal candidates for our post-secondary system.

It’s time to think broadly and develop practical solutions to promote our excellent post-secondary institutions on the international stage. We don’t need any more repackaged buzzwords, and misnamed “strategies;” we need big ideas that match and support our world-class post-secondary education sector.

Ted Hsu is the Liberal post-secondary education critic. He is the member of Parliament for Kingston and the Islands, Ont.

This article appeared in Embassy on Wednesday, May 7, 2014.

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