Yuen Pau Woo, president and CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, keeps close watch on our relations with Asia, the world's most dynamic economic region. He regularly advises the Shanghai WTO Affairs Consultation Center, and since 2006 has co-ordinated the annual report published by the Singapore-based Pacific Economic Cooperation Council.
Unsurprisingly, then, when Mr. Woo thinks of Canada's competitiveness in the battle for the best brains, he looks to the East.
Born in Malaysia and raised in Singapore, Mr. Woo has deep experience as an international student. In Canada, he was educated at Victoria's Lester B. Pearson United World College of the Pacific. He also went to schools in the United States, at Wheaton College, and in the U.K., at the University of Cambridge and the University of London.
Canada has a mixed record drawing the best and brightest students from countries such as China, India and Korea, Mr. Woo says. Although Canadian universities rank well in the global league tables, he argues, they could do a better job of promoting this excellence.
"We have a good reputation to build on as a way of attracting international students, but we're perhaps slightly underwhelming in our ability to make known our capabilities and our prowess in post-secondary education," he says.
That may explain why, despite recent progress, Canada lags behind other major Western countries in securing international students. In 2009, Mr. Woo notes, we hosted about 90,000 foreign students. With that equating to roughly 3 per cent of the global market, Canada is still well behind traditional university destinations such as Australia, the U.K. and the U.S.
For our universities, Mr. Woo says, the opportunities created by education going global extend well beyond the elites of emerging markets - and beyond Canadian classrooms. Throughout Asia, middle-class and lower-middle-class families are making great financial sacrifices to give their children a high-quality post-secondary education. Increasingly, Western universities are responding by delivering programs abroad. For example, Yale University is planning a campus in Singapore, following the lead of U.S. rival Duke University, France's INSEAD and other top schools.
"It's not clear that Canadian universities are ready to take such a dramatic step," Mr. Woo says. "But there's no question in my mind that there is a demand for this kind of delivery system, and that there will be educational institutions both in the public and the private sector looking to fill this demand."
How, then, can Canadian universities compete with brand names such as Yale, Harvard and Oxford? Mr. Woo says the answer is to develop a comprehensive program - including attractive scholarships - that targets foreign students at a younger age.
It's not a job for individual universities alone, he adds. "[It]will also involve, I think, the provincial ministries of education and the government of Canada writ large, to make international education a priority and to make the attraction of the very best and brightest students a priority as well."
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