What is the purpose of foreign students? It's a stark question but one that the federal government is failing to ask in its rush to just increase the numbers.
When the goal of raising the number of foreign students in Canada to 450,000 was announced last month, I was reading education news in Spain where students are grappling with their own issues, from an unemployment rate of over 50 per cent to increasing fees for degrees. Among the financial aid programs that are being adjusted are the Erasmus bursaries. The EU-wide scholarships fund students to study in each other's countries for a few terms.
It's quite a different model than the one the feds are pursuing here, where studying at a Canadian university is seen as the first step to settling in Canada permanently. In the Euro model and other types of partnerships between universities, students move between institutions, experiencing other cultures, teaching methods and making connections. Rather than making a commitment to studying and living in one university for the duration of a degree, the idea is to spend a year or two abroad before returning home – or trying out another country. The flow of students is not one-way but two-way – domestic students are encouraged and helped to study abroad.
Since its origins, Erasmus has seen millions of students participate, giving rise to the term "Erasmus generation," youth who identify with Europe as much as their own nationality. The program is showing a few cracks – in Spain, top students with advanced language proficiency will receive 350 Euros a month, 100 Euros more than their average peers. But funding for the program is increasing overall.
The idea of making two-way flows of students the primary goal of study abroad programs is worth thinking about. Aiming to attract foreign students who can pay much higher tuition fees leads to many issues. We won't get a diverse student body; value their different experience of education; or listen, integrate or take their opinions seriously. Instead, the students will be seen as a necessary but unfortunate trade-off. Critics will say (as they have) that it can be difficult to have ESL learners in the classroom. Or there isn't enough space for everyone. As if learners with different needs don't already exist in the classroom and universities are construction wallflowers.
This is not an environment that makes a foreign student want to come to Canada.
Individually, many universities are starting to take the idea of exchange seriously, linking up with programs abroad to offer split degrees where students can do two years in each place, a model long practised by business schools. But even when the costs of tuition are the same abroad as they are in Canada, these courses are expensive, with higher housing costs and plane tickets.
The point of Erasmus was and still is to make it possible for everyone to see a bit of the world. That philosophy is absent from Canada's strategy. Sending students abroad is not a priority. Ironically, the countries from which we are trying to attract students are increasingly building new universities or partnering up with U.S., British and Australian schools to set up branch campuses. Not only are there more places in the world our students could attend, but competition for foreign students is intensifying from all directions.
That's why asking why we want international students is so important. If it's just for their money, they're unlikely to come.
Simona Chiose is The Globe and Mail's Education Editor. Follow her on Twitter @srchiose