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John Stackhouse is a senior vice-president at Royal Bank of Canada and is a former editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail. Andrew Schrumm is a senior manager of research at RBC.

Finding better ways to leverage the value of Canadian universities should be a central focus as we build the postpandemic economy.

Fuelled by a growing global middle class, the demand for a university education is expected to double by next decade, with an estimated 300 million people holding a degree in 2030.

Canada enters this era in a position of strength. Only the United States and Australia have greater market share in international students. But Canadian universities must rethink what it means to be a destination of choice in an ever-expanding digital world.

There are twice as many people in the world attending university online as on campus. The pandemic has tilted the transition to the virtual classroom further still, as more than 1.6 billion students worldwide completed their last school year digitally. Their experiences will form new habits in the way we earn school credits.

Moreover, tuition costs fluctuate on currency rates. This year, as the Canadian dollar appreciated, the price to attend a Canadian campus became more expensive and potentially out of reach for many of those seeking education abroad. By its very nature, online education can provide a far more affordable alternative to millions of students around the world.

These factors have all come to a head this year. Many universities face immediate and immense fiscal pressures because of a material decline in the level of international students attending Canadian campuses. The number of processed study permits have plummeted, too. Billions of dollars of revenue have been lost as a result. And it is not reasonable to assume they can be fully made up by the provinces, who find themselves under significant financial constraints from the health crisis, and with a wide range of competing priorities.

The most critical year for Canadian universities is now under way and they will be tested like never before. While dealing with the immediate challenges, they should also cast an eye to the transformation in global learning. But their efforts should not be carried out in isolation.

Better leveraging the value of Canadian universities is key to our country’s ability to thrive and prosper in an increasingly knowledge-based global economy. The public and private sector must work together to make this Canada’s moment.

In advance of a Globe and Mail conference to explore the role international education can play in Canada’s future, RBC published a paper that proposes a way forward. We believe a hybrid postsecondary model – online at entry, and on campus at completion – could allow Canada’s universities to open up our education system to millions of young, mobile learners and make Canada a key player in this part of the platform economy.

Here’s how the “Canada U” program could work: It would offer open enrolment for early-year studies online in the students’ home country. A wide selection of courses led by Canadian-based faculty and teaching assistants would populate the platform. Once students have achieved equivalent credits to 50 per cent of a desired program, they would have the opportunity to apply for admission and complete their schooling at a Canadian university. Importantly, this model would also provide the opportunity to undertake remote work-integrated learning with Canadian employers to help students develop the skills and networks to thrive in the evolving workplace.

Canada U would be no small undertaking. It would require unprecedented collaboration among our universities to provide course instruction and materials that are easy to consume and comprehend for those who have grown up digital. Canada’s universities have already made significant investments in remote learning methods and technology. A collective effort to marshal these resources toward a unique international offering program could magnify their reach.

Support from various levels of government would also be needed to build digital infrastructure and global marketing, as well as among provincial credit transfer bodies to ensure smooth academic transitions. Expediting visa processing, ensuring safe housing and broadening recruitment efforts would also be among the critical steps.

Ottawa could also carve out a complementary role to fund initiatives that transform our economy in ways where we can create even greater opportunities to thrive and prosper.

Canadian universities are a major producer of knowledge, a strategic resource inextricably linked to our future prospects. With a concerted effort, we can make Canada a destination of choice for students attending university on campus or online. The benefits will serve educators, employers and our economy alike.

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