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Amit Chakma

Why international student scholarships are good for Canada Add to ...

Last Wednesday, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty announced a new scholarship program that will provide 75 of the world's best PhD students with $40,000 annually, up to four years, to pursue doctoral studies at Ontario universities.

The Ontario Trillium Scholarship program is committing $20-million, with participating universities contributing another $10-million.

As president of a university committed to expanding graduate education, I am thrilled with the announcement. Offering scholarships to the world's brightest students will help Ontario universities compete with the world's best international schools.

Top talent is extremely mobile, and we are in fierce competition with other global players for the best and brightest. Universities play an important role in attracting such talent, and programs like Trillium help ensure we have the skills to build the economy, lead innovation and create the jobs of the future.

However, the program is not without its critics.

They ask why Mr. McGuinty is spending taxpayer dollars to educate people who aren't from the province. Providing funding for foreign students to study in Ontario, critics say, is wrong.

I don't share these views. Rather, I argue the benefits of this and similar scholarship and research programs that aim to attract talent to Canada far outweigh the costs.

During the next two decades, Canada will face significant global challenges. Our historically resource-based economy will continue evolving into a knowledge-based economy, while our general population will age.

As jobs for those with postsecondary degrees grow in number, jobs for those without will disappear. During the global economic slowdown of the past two years, Canada saw a net increase of 280,000 jobs for university graduates, while 260,000 jobs for those without a university education were lost.

Think ahead to 2030. Canadians aged 65 and older will be double in number, while the work force aged 24-64 is expected to grow by only 8 per cent. As baby boomers retire, demands for expertise in the medical, legal, financial and social services will rise.

Who will fill these jobs and meet these needs?

Clearly, we require solutions that increase the size and skills of our work force. To thrive in a global economy, we must attract, develop and retain talented people - which means expanding access to and enhancing the quality of higher education.

Canada has made good progress rising to these challenges in recent years, but much more is still to be done. Today, 898,000 students are enrolled in Canadian universities - a 57-per-cent increase over the past 15 years. Ontario alone is accommodating 20,000 more students than it did last year, on top of 120,000 additional spots created since 2003.

As part of this expansion, the Ontario government is committed to increasing international student enrolment by 50 per cent over the next five years, while also increasing the number of spaces for qualified domestic students. The Trillium Scholarships are an integral part of this plan.

Ontario is not alone in pursuing an aggressive internationalization agenda. Other provinces and countries have similar goals, and programs to achieve them.

Last year, 77,000 international students enrolled in Canadian postsecondary institutions, with more than 38,000 of those in Ontario - triple the numbers of 1998. But despite these increases, Canada still lags far behind countries such as the United States, Britain and Australia.

In 2008, the U.S. attracted 456,000 international students, Britain 306,000, and Australia 181,000 (more than twice the 90,000 in Canada in 2010).

So what's the attraction? In Ontario, international students contribute an estimated $1-billion annually to the provincial economy. Their diverse cultural perspectives enrich the educational experience for all students in the classroom. And after they graduate, an estimated 80 per cent remain in the province after graduation - pursuing careers, raising families and contributing as productive citizens in the country they adopt as their home.

The Trillium Scholarships - like the federal Vanier Graduate Scholarships (which offer $50,000 annually to international doctoral candidates up to three years) and Canada Excellence in Research Chairs - are critically important if we wish to attract the world's best and brightest. We need more of these people and programs, not fewer.

Amit Chakma is president and vice-chancellor at the University of Western Ontario.

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