Creating scholarships for 75 foreign PhD students, as Ontario has done (following Ottawa's lead), is the sort of long-term thinking that is politically risky but highly worthwhile.
The four-year, $40,000-a-year scholarships are fraught because in insecure times, the tendency is to hunker down, protect one's own, get back to basics. Ontario has a large annual deficit. Family incomes are stagnant. University tuition has risen steadily. While the cost of the $30-million spent on the foreign scholarships is not huge, especially when compared to the $500-million that currently goes to grants and scholarships, it is $30-million that is not being spent on support for Ontario students. All this has been played to great advantage by Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, as a symbol of a government that doesn't "get it" - it being the frustrations of working families.
Political calculations aside, a good case can be made that Ontario's Liberal government, like the federal Conservative government before it, is right to take a forward-looking approach. In July, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the $45-million Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships for 70 foreign students worth $70,000 a year for two years.
Ontario has structural problems. Its manufacturing sector has been eroded by global competition. Growth in its workforce will soon grind to a near-halt; already the province falls far short of producing enough workers with graduate-level degrees to help drive the province's growth and standard of living. It's a problem for the entire country; Canada ranks roughly 25th among industrialized countries for the number of PhDs per capita. There is a cost to turning inward.
Many of the fertile minds attracted to the province's universities will stay and contribute in multiple ways. Those who leave will have knowledge of and contacts with Canada that should prove valuable. While the students are here, they will help their fellow students acquire a more international outlook - an outlook that is becoming all the more necessary in business, science and other domains.
That international outlook is spreading through Canadian education - it's a staple of business schools, for instance. Neil Turok, director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont., which sets out to attract some of the world's top scientific minds, told The Globe and Mail's editorial board yesterday, "Because the rest of the world is in relative difficulty financially, now is the time to attract global talent. Canada has an amazing opportunity."
A good case, a difficult sell. Innovation means trying something that can't be proven in advance, as Roger Martin, dean of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, says. The foreign scholarships are a investment with a strong upside, and a high risk that is mostly political.