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The Globe and Mail

How to get foreign students past “the weather – COLD”

Daniela Fontes Goncalves and Pedro Hirata are exchange students from Brazil studying neuroscience/biology at Western University in London, Ont., two of the thousands of students Brazil is sending abroad.

GEOFF ROBINS/The Globe and Mail

Canada's universities combine outstanding quality, relevance and affordability. They offer safe and welcoming learning environments. In the globally competitive international education sector, this is an enviable place to be.

So why – in a recent survey of students, parents and education advisers in Brazil, China and India – was Canada not on the map?

Our competitors have offices in key markets with budgets for promoting and building brand awareness. Canada currently spends just $1-million a year to pursue a market that contributes $8-billion annually to communities across the country. Australia has been spending about 20 times that amount for about 15 years – so yes, their brand awareness is higher. The United Kingdom has invested targeted resources in addition to the remarkable reach of the British Council. And U.S. President Barack Obama has made explicit commitments to fund efforts to recruit hundreds of thousands of students from China, India and Brazil.

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Even as trade talks stall, and Canada`s approach to foreign investment is clarified, Canada's education sector has still made enormous strides in advancing Canada's place in the world. Three years ago, Canada's universities, colleges, public schools and language institutes formed a consortium to work together to attract more students to Canada. And the results are encouraging – international student enrollment is up 12 per cent at universities this year; enrollment from India is up 40 per cent over two years; and Brazil recently committed to sending up to 12,000 students to Canada through its innovative Science without Borders program.

Achieving that success in Brazil took years of effort and overcoming what respondents to the survey released this week said was a barrier to making Canada their destination: "The weather – COLD." Canada's universities identified Brazil as a priority country to pursue two years ago. The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada organized a strategy session for Canadian university leaders, key Brazilian counterparts, and government officials nine months before a mission by university presidents to the country. The Canada-Brazil Science and Technology working group met concurrently to identify areas for greater collaboration, and leaders of Canada's private sector and media were invited to share their insights. As we built momentum around a Canada strategy for Brazil, a Senate committee initiated a study of the Canada-Brazil relationship, and MPs took an active interest. The Prime Minister announced that the Governor-General would lead the mission to Brazil, and that he would be joined by two ministers, and an accompanying delegation of MPs, business leaders and others from the education sector.

Throughout the process and with the help of public servants, the sector negotiated a series of preliminary agreements that were completed in advance of the April 2012 mission over the course of three working visits. Over the 10 day, four-city mission, Canada's universities announced 73 new partnerships and Governor-General David Johnston met with President Dilma Rousseff. The number of students Brazil would send was not confirmed until that meeting, in which Mr. Johnston closed the deal so that Canada became the second largest beneficiary of the Science without Borders program. The first thousand students are on campus now and another cohort of about 500 students are expected in January.

This is a compelling example of getting international education marketing right – sector led, with support from government, and active engagement of the private sector, tied to broader strategic interests for Canada (in this case, advancing science technology and innovation with the world's sixth largest economy).

But there is more to do. As Ipsos-Reid, the polling company commissioned by the Foreign Affairs Department put it, Canada needs to "communicate its postsecondary education advantages" globally. Or as Prime Minister Stephen Harper said last week in Delhi, "Canada needs to be connected to an international supply of ideas, research, talent and technologies in order to create jobs, growth and long-term prosperity in an increasingly competitive environment."

A sophisticated international education strategy will recognize that, even within the university sector, there are at least four different groups we want to attract – each serving a different public policy goal and requiring specific marketing tools:

Undergraduates are the largest potential pool offering immediate economic benefit to Canada, a source of high quality immigrants and proven potential for increased trade. Master's and PhD students have demonstrated abilities from the world`s best institutions, particularly in the fields of science ,technology, engineering and math to help Canada strengthen our innovation capacity. Post-doctoral students who are outstanding new scholars require targeted measures to attract them to pursue their early careers here. And finally, young global faculty with whom we can develop international research collaborations and who in turn will ignite interest in Canada among the next generation of their students overseas.

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By living with and learning from international students, Canadian students have the opportunity to acquire the global skills employers are demanding. Moreover, their presence on our campuses alerts Canadian students to the intensity of the global competition that awaits them upon graduation and creates life-long networks that will span the world and continue beyond their time on campus. Universities are ready to participate in the sustained, co-ordinated and resourced initiative to leverage more fully our global brand for excellence in education.

Paul Davidson is president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.

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