Some time this summer, the federal government is expected to make public a new international education strategy for the country.
The task force responsible for the report was headed up by Western University president Amit Chakma. And while we don't know precisely what it entails, student recruitment will certainly be a crucial component of it.
International students represent an economic bonanza worth tens of billions of dollars to countries like the United States, Britain and Australia. They were the first countries to really take advantage of this market. Canada, although late to the party, has made up significant ground in a short period of time.
Estimates of how much money international students mean to our domestic economy range from $6-billion to $10-billion.
But the landscape is changing fast, according to a recent report by the Netherlands Organization for International Co-operation in Higher Education (Nuffic).
According to the study, it is now generally accepted, worldwide, that the recruitment of international students is becoming more crucial for the education systems and job markets of developed countries where birth rates are falling and more fragmented and competitive as more countries join the race for the planet's top young minds.
For years, countries such as Australia and the United States have plundered countries such as China and India of many of their best students, enticing them with lucrative scholarships and dreams of a rich new life abroad. In recent years, Canada has been right in there, too. But the terms of this battle are about to change.
In 2011, India increased higher education spending by 30 per cent, according to the Nuffic report. This has been done not only in the hopes it might help keep the country's best from leaving, but also attract some of the best and the brightest from countries that have previously been doing most of the hunting.
The Chinese government, meantime, aims to have 500,000 international students enrolled in China's higher education system by 2020, twice the number it now hosts and well in excess of the totals it sends abroad. Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea, among the countries that have long seen their finest leave for the Oxfords, Harvards and McGills of the world, are spending hundreds of millions not only to keep many of them home but to attract their intellectual counterparts from elsewhere.
There are 3.3 million international students in the world now. By 2025, that number is expected to reach 7.2 million, according to Nuffic.
The bottom line for Canada is the competition for international students is about to get fierce. But the fact that emerging economies might have scholarship money to offer some of our top minds isn't entirely bad news.
The other side of this story is the push many countries are making now to get their students international experience. As we know, the Internet has shrunk the planet dramatically. We can talk and work with people half a world away in real time. More and more, economies are being built on international networks. Increasingly, those connections are being made at the postsecondary level.
There is no better example of the belief in this new reality than Brazil. Over the next four years, the government will spend $2-billion to help send more than 100,000 of its best students to universities around the world in the hopes they form relationships that will benefit the country down the road. Canada will receive about 12,000 of them; the second-highest total of all recipient countries.
"It's a big bet because it says the next generation needs a different skill set than the previous generation," says Paul Davidson, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.
"The Brazilian government is saying we're going to help you acquire those skills in language, in international experience, in acquiring the comfort to work with people across borders and across languages."
When students study abroad they plant a flag, of sorts, and become champions for their country. Leading countries recognize that brain circulation, building international pipelines of talent, will be the most important factor of the knowledge economies of tomorrow.
Let's hope the federal government's anticipated report recognizes this too.