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Brazilian student Claus Souza says he loves the Laurentian campus and wants to stay in Sudbury - if there's good work to be found. While the university has been successful in luring more and more foreign students, keeping them in the city after they graduate is another story. (Gino Donato for The Globe and Mail)
Brazilian student Claus Souza says he loves the Laurentian campus and wants to stay in Sudbury - if there's good work to be found. While the university has been successful in luring more and more foreign students, keeping them in the city after they graduate is another story. (Gino Donato for The Globe and Mail)

Test Drive: Ontario

Why Sudbury is an unlikely magnet for global education Add to ...

It's a hopeful story for blue-collar company towns that aim to be something more. But for a really happy ending, Sudbury won't be able to rely just on its own born and bred.

As populations age, most Western cities need a steady flow of newcomers. That's especially the case for a smaller northern outpost that will always see a chunk of its youth head for Toronto or other larger cities.

And that's where the magnetic pull of higher education comes in.

Settlement issues

Laurentian has buzz. Having served for most of its history largely as a default option for kids who grew up in Sudbury or parts north, it's reinventing itself as a school that excels in certain fields - largely sciences that can be put to use in natural resource development.

The shift has accelerated since last year's appointment of Dominic Giroux - a 34-year-old ball of energy who was a rising star in the provincial civil service - as the university's president.

Particularly encouraging, from the perspective of building human capital, is the university's increasing focus on attracting foreign students and its graduate programs, who, according to the Council of Ontario Universities, are more likely to find work in Canada than undergraduates.

The province recently took measures to encourage graduate students to stay by introducing rules that will allow those with PhDs to be fast-tracked for permanent residency even before they find jobs - a provision that may eventually be extended to those who've earned masters degrees.

But whether those who stay in Ontario will stay in Sudbury is a different matter. No statistics are available for how many students settle locally, but Mr. Luk estimates it's only about 10 per cent.

Part of the problem could be that Laurentian's campus, a spacious green property adjacent to a beach and a golf course, sits like an island within the city. Students who come from elsewhere can easily resist integrating themselves into a car-centric city with limited multiculturalism.

Revitalizing the downtown, which Mr. Rodriguez candidly acknowledges is "ratty" next to the retail-heavy newer parts of town, is a priority. Toward that end, Mr. Giroux is championing a new architecture school that - if provincial funding comes through - would be in the core. The idea is that the building itself, to be designed by the internationally renowned (and Sudbury-bred) Bruce Mau, would bring new life to the cityscape. So would having hundreds of students attending classes downtown.

But most everyone acknowledges that by far the biggest factor in keeping newcomers around is interesting, well-paid work in their chosen field.

In interviews, a Chinese student and a Brazilian student expressed a desire to stay in Canada. They're willing to give Sudbury a chance, but they'll go where opportunity lies.

Universities can help create that opportunity by connecting students to local employers through work programs. The federal government loosened restrictions on student visas four years ago to allow off-campus work, and Laurentian - like most schools - still hasn't fully taken advantage of it.

But ultimately, employers must have enough high-end jobs to keep graduates around permanently. And For all of Sudbury's progress, that's where the constraints typical for northern Ontario cities still fall leave it short.

Looking to the 'Ring of Fire'

From an inadequate transportation system to soaring energy prices, there are all sorts of impediments to creating attractive jobs in the north. And Mr. Rodriguez, like many northern Ontarians, thinks the province is failing falling down in addressing them.

"You need a different creative class of people," he says. "And we've got an education infrastructure that can deliver that. But what's the point, if they can't find the jobs here? So they'll ultimately leave us, and they have been leaving us."

Mr. Rodriguez cites the emergence of chromite mining in the "Ring of Fire" in the province's northwest as an opportunity to capitalize on Sudbury's resources, rather than shipping raw material overseas to have value added.

"You heard it here first," he says. "That chromite is going to come down to the CN line, and it'll go on ocean containers. It'll ship all the way out to Prince Rupert, right onto the ships, and they'll go all the way to China. And we'll buy back stainless steel."

He can be forgiven for being a tad dramatic. For all Sudbury's progress, its geography means it will have to scratch and claw to maintain it.

It is precisely the sort of reinvented economy that Mr. McGuinty's government is supposed to be helping. The Premier is getting the foreign students he wants. Next, he'll need more of a plan to put that human capital to good use.

Peter Luk can get them here. Others will have to make them want to stay.

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