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Gary Mason

Bringing smart people to Canada can only make us better Add to ...

Have you noticed? India is the new "it" country.

U.S. President Barack Obama was there recently, drumming up business. Prime Minister Stephen Harper says Canada will soon begin free-trade negotiations with the world's most populous democracy. Even Pamela Anderson is taping a reality television show in Mumbai. Meantime, a delegation of Canadian university presidents has just returned from a week there trying to sell the country on the merits of our postsecondary institutions.

We are almost embarrassingly late to the party in India, especially our universities. The United States, Britain and Australia have been mining India (and China) for its top young minds for years. And they've been attracting them with the kind of lucrative scholarships that have recently ignited controversy in this country.

Foreign students are good for Canada. Since most aren't here on scholarships financed by Canadian taxpayers, they're a good source of revenue for our universities, as well as our economy as a whole. Foreign students bring in billions each year. But there's the potential for even greater benefits if we can entice India's brightest young academic stars to do their graduate work at McGill or UBC instead of Stanford or UCLA.

Scratch the surface of many of the high-tech startups in Silicon Valley and you'll often find young geniuses from India who did their graduate work at top U.S. universities driving much of the innovation. This is what we need to do in Canada.

"There are so many good reasons to be doing this," says Arvind Gupta, scientific director of MITACS, a national research network that connects Canadian companies with expertise in our universities. "A lot of those smart kids we're recruiting from India are going to start successful companies, many of them here. Even if they leave after they've finished school, we have a connection with someone who is going to be doing amazing things in the future. We should be building a network of the smartest people in the world who have a connection to Canada and leveraging that network."

The exceptionally bright and gifted challenge our university professors to be better, and they up the competitive level of their lab partners. Small things, maybe, but they have a domino effect.

Attracting super-smart foreign students isn't bad news for our homegrown talent, despite what some say. There's more than enough capacity in postgraduate programs to supply the demand from Canadian students, with room to spare. Besides, the federal government has invested billions in our universities to help make many of them some of the world's top research-intensive institutions. They're finally poised to become a player in the global hunt for the planet's top young minds.

So what kind of bang are we getting for our buck?

We're already spending tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to attract the world's top foreign students, yet no one knows for sure how many are staying after getting their graduate and postdoctoral degrees to apply their knowledge in Canada. Some say it's 30 per cent; others insist it's as high as 80 per cent. We should be tracking that. We should also be doing a better job of creating the kind of research environment that will encourage these students to apply their knowledge in Canada instead of, say, California.

"We need an industrial strategy in Canada that creates high-quality innovation and research and development jobs," said Mr. Gupta. "We don't do that, so our best young people, including Canadians, leave. … We need to attract these students from places like India, but we also need to find a way to keep them here."

Bringing smart people to Canada can only make us better. It's no different than the Montreal Canadiens or the Vancouver Canucks scouring the world for the best hockey talent available, players that will give them the best opportunity of winning a Stanley Cup. In the innovation economy, countries had better be prepared to do the same thing.

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