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University of Windsor president Alan Wildeman has a plan to attract more U.S. students: creating special tuition fees that are up to $10,000 less than what other international students pay. (GEOFF ROBINS/The Globe and Mail)
University of Windsor president Alan Wildeman has a plan to attract more U.S. students: creating special tuition fees that are up to $10,000 less than what other international students pay. (GEOFF ROBINS/The Globe and Mail)

The Americans are not coming. Should Canada's universities care? Add to ...

From Alan Wildeman’s office window, the Ambassador Bridge to the United States is “about a driver and two 3-woods away” – a few hundred yards, in golf parlance. So it is a source of frustration to the University of Windsor president that of 2,000 international students his university hosted this year from all corners of the world, only 82 came from south of the border.

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Betting that cost is the main barrier, the University of Windsor is creating a “U.S. neighbour fee” that will charge undergraduates from the United States $10,000 per year – up to $10,000 less than what international students currently pay. The hope is that the university will nab some of the students planning to attend nearby schools such as Michigan University or Detroit’s Wayne State University.

“We’ve only got 82 from the U.S., and you’d think, my gosh, we’re living in the midst of close to six million [Americans],” Dr. Wildeman said. “We are closer to Wayne State than [Toronto’s York University] is to the University of Toronto.”

While Canada’s international-student population has exploded to 265,377 students at all education levels, student traffic between Canada and the U.S. – in both directions – levelled off years ago. The 76-per-cent spike in foreign students since 2002 has been built by successfully appealing to countries like China and India, setting Canada up to benefit over the coming decades from having university graduates in those economic powerhouses who are familiar with and even fond of Canada.

Yet there is also growing recognition that Canada neglects its closest educational neighbours at its peril. Canada remains the U.S.’s primary economic partner, with rising trade totals reaching nearly $617-billion last year. Businesses in both countries say they still value graduates with roots and personal networks on both sides of the border. Nevertheless, the steady stream of students back and forth is beginning to look like a trickle in the Niagara Falls of international exchanges.

“The smaller the world gets, the more important [exchange] is,” said Michael Hawes, CEO of Fulbright Canada, which administers prestigious scholarships to exchange students with the U.S. “As economic interdependence grows, as the movement of people more generally becomes greater, real experiences, I think, are even more critical.”

The status quo

At first glance, the numbers of Canadian and U.S. students crossing the border to study appear steady and unremarkable, which is precisely what makes them noteworthy.

As of Dec. 1, 2012, there were 12,128 U.S. students studying in Canada at all levels of education – 643 fewer than in 2002, or a 5-per-cent drop, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Of the 2012 total, 9,305 were at universities, and just 1,000 at colleges. At the same time, 26,821 Canadians travelled to study at U.S. universities in 2012, which is only 307 more than in 2002, or a 1-per-cent bump.

Over the same decade, the number of Chinese students coming to Canada to study jumped from 29,738 to nearly 80,000, while enrolments from India climbed from just 3,830 to nearly 29,000, or rises of 169 per cent and 657 per cent respectively.

Canadians considering U.S. education often have eyes mostly for the Ivy League schools such as Harvard, Yale and Columbia, which helped mould prominent Canadians such as Mark Carney, Jim Balsillie and Ken Dryden. The numbers of Canadians enrolled in the Ivy League have held steady despite the boom in applications from the brigade of so-called BRIC countries – growing economic powerhouses Brazil, Russia, India and China – which are sending greater numbers of students to these elite schools each year.

In a decade of massive expansion of student participation and mobility in higher education, the movement of students within North America stayed flat, suggesting that both countries’ recruiting strategies have grown stale.

The special relationship

A Fulbright scholarship is still considered one of the most prestigious and highly sought-after honours by students on both sides of the border. The Fulbrights were set up to send students and professors on exchanges specifically between Canada and the U.S., funded largely by the U.S. State Department to engage the two countries intellectually and raise the profile of their universities. And while the Canadian Fulbright arm has expanded, the scholarships’ main U.S. funding source has stayed constant.

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