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education memo

In the discussion of the RBC-TFW controversy, empathy has been in short supply. Canadians assume that a company would hire abroad or recruit temporary foreign workers because it is unwilling to pay for well-educated, well-trained Canadians. After all, international organizations praise Canadian educational achievements – the OECD tells us we are No. 3 in the world for our postsecondary graduation rates. Shouldn't we be compensated for those efforts?

High levels of education are not going to insulate the Canadian labour market from foreign workers. Nor should they. Young people in the rest of the world are also enrolling in college and university in increasing numbers and they too expect to be rewarded for their efforts. Here are three reasons why global trends in education spell the end of national labour markets.

TFWs at Tim's have B.As too. Many of the temporary foreign workers who fill the lower-skilled tiers of the program have higher educational qualifications than permanent residents working full-time. One revealing paper by Sophia J. Lowe found that 40 per cent of men working as TFWs in lower-skilled occupations had postsecondary credentials. For women, half of cleaners, cashiers and sales clerks had those qualifications. This education will make it easier for them to apply to stay in Canada permanently. And why would they not want to stay? These are workers like Mishra, one of the new middle-class of educated Indians encountered in Siddhartha Deb's The Beautiful and the Damned: A portrait of the new India. Lacking connections, Mishra, an accountant, looks for a job by pounding on the doors of factories along a highway outside of Hyderabad.

The world is investing in education. The biggest story of the past year has been the move up in international university rankings of universities in Asia. Institutions in China, Singapore and South Korea are making double digit gains in the rankings tables and while they are not yet closing in on the American leaders, the moves signal their ambition. The governments of these countries are determined to build homegrown universities that will offer growing middle and upper classes opportunities to study at home rather than decamp to campuses abroad. And the middle classes themselves are determined to get filthy rich (to borrow from the title of a recent novel about this group's aspirations). Between 2005 and 2009, for example, Brazil saw an almost 70 per cent increase in the number of people enrolling in education after high school. A global marketplace for labour greatly values their ambition and determination.

Educated workers don't need passports. The idea of immigration with a set destination is giving way to that of circular migration. Educated Europeans are not bound by borders in their job search; Eastern Europeans who work in the U.K. or France in lower-skilled service jobs often do so for a number of years before using their earnings to build houses "back home." Then they do it again. Virtually, we've been global citizens for a long time now - the physical world is simply playing catch up.

Do temporary foreign workers and permanent immigrants need better labour protections and credential recognition? Yes. Does it make any sense to allow companies to pay TFWs 15 per cent less than the prevailing wage? Of course not. But the question to ask is not how Canada can protect its national labour market, but what we can do to make sure our students have an education that is globally competitive.