To double the number of foreign students studying in Canada, as an advisory panel to the federal government proposed last week, would be so beneficial that it is a shame we can't just snap our fingers and make it so. Instead, it will require a more cohesive national strategy – one that helps our universities keep pace on recruitment with those in bigger countries, notably the United States and Britain, and countries that have to this point been more aggressive, including Australia and New Zealand.
Foreign students enrich the educational experience of their Canadian counterparts by providing more diverse perspectives, and give an economic boost to host communites. In many cases, those with strong skill sets seek to join the labour force here after graduation; others go back to their home countries and serve as unofficial ambassadors for Canada, helping to strengthen economic ties. No wonder there is such stiff competition to attract them.
An unusually safe country with relative value-for-money in its postsecondary programs and large immigrant communities with support networks, Canada boasts many of the qualities that students (and, at least as importantly, their parents) tend to look for. The challenge is largely profile. Those who work in university recruitment attest that in China, India and other emerging economies most heavily targeted, Canada is often barely on the radar.
Perhaps the most important of the 14 recommendations in the advisory panel's report, which ties into several of the other suggestions, is to do more to market Canada's brand. From developing communication materials to participating in trade fairs to forging relationships with foreign universities, there are roles the federal government is uniquely able to play, because it is seen elsewhere to have more credibility than provinces or postsecondary institutions.
The political value of doing so may be limited, and can even invite some backlash. When Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty announced an international scholarship program aimed at raising the profile of his province's universities, he was accused by his opponents of favouring foreign students over domestic ones. Concerns about such small-mindedness should not be allowed to infect decision-making; knowing that international recruitment is in fact very much about domestic needs, Ottawa should give it the priority it deserves.