From Latin prayers to mud pits, debate teams to dog-bone-eating, over more than a century Canadian boarding schools have developed unique traditions, but there is one they all share: a proud sense of competition.
For decades, these schools fought over the best Canadian students. But given the recent recession and a generation of protective parents more reluctant than ever to be separated from their children, they have seen enrolment drop 14 per cent over the past four years. In order to fill their beds, 28 of the country's oldest and biggest boarding schools have banded together to tap the international market, now the source of about half their students.
The problem is, as a destination Canada is far behind such leaders as the United States, Britain and Australia. Its share of the market actually slipped to 4.4 per cent in 2008 from 5.05 per cent in 2000, according to a report prepared for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Billions of dollars are at stake: International students inject $6.5-billion a year into the economy, that report says, meaning education is a more valuable Canadian export than coal or coniferous lumber.
This is where co-operation becomes a good business strategy: The boarding schools, all Canadian Accredited Independent Schools, have pooled their resources to meet a budget just shy of $1-million to market themselves at home and abroad. In the latter, the emphasis is on selling Canada, not the individual institutions.
"It just makes strategic sense, there's such a need for a collective voice to sell Canadian education internationally," said Anne-Marie Kee, executive director of CAIS. "Parents love us because we're a safe place, students love the diversity and the idea of studying at a school with kids from 30 countries, and our schools are among the best in the world."
While the United States and Britain are obvious choices for families overseas shopping for a top-tier English education, Australia provides evidence that investing in an effective sales pitch works.
By investing tens of millions of dollars each year in international marketing, schools Down Under have won a disproportionately large slice of the international student pie: They recruit nearly three times as many postsecondary students as Canada, according to data compiled by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Recently, however, Australia has been grappling with image problems relating to quality and racially charged attacks.
Meanwhile, Canada's efforts to woo international students at any level have been relatively small and disjointed - until now. DFAIT has begun to increase its investment, from about $1-million to $5-million, in its Edu-Canada initiative, which markets schools abroad. Not only are international students a boon to the economy, but about half of them end up applying for permanent residency after they graduate. And without the problems of foreign credentials or language barriers, they are among the most desirable immigrants.
They include students such as Hyunbin Lee, a 22-year-old South Korean entrepreneur who has launched a T-shirt printing business, LondonPrintCo.com, with one of his classmates at the University of Western Ontario.
Mr. Lee started in 2009 with barely $15,000 and insider access to one of the biggest design-your-own-T-shirts markets around - university students. The company turned a small profit in its first year, and is looking to keep American competitors out of the market by investing in new technology that will make printing complex designs in any quantity simple enough for any beer-soaked undergraduate with a laptop.
Growing up in Seoul, Mr. Lee said, his parents, a doctor and a lawyer, wanted him to go to school in the United States, but their youngest son felt drawn to Canada - it seemed "more friendly, more open."
After two years at Appleby College, a private boarding school in Oakville, Ont., he knew he wanted to stay in Canada.
"In Korea everybody was just competing for top marks," he said. "Appleby showed me that everyone can have their own focus and expertise in their own area. It's a kind of idealistic thing I've seen in this education system, and that's what has kept me here in Canada."
CAIS's boarding school coalition is just getting started - members had their first strategy meeting last month at Appleby. Some are looking to boost enrolment by taking on more international students, others are looking to recruit the most competitive candidates. But as they shift their resources toward touting Canada instead of individual schools, they will join a growing chorus of voices pitching Canadian education abroad.