In a small classroom at Toronto's York University, a handful of students gather each morning to practise their English.
"Saudi Arabia is a very safe country, so you can go anywhere," a young woman writes on the blackboard as they take up the day's lesson.
In fact, all the students in this intensive language class are Saudis, here thanks to a decision by their government to pump billions of petrodollars into higher education. At York, the language school can't keep up with demand and has capped Saudi enrolment at 94 to comply with a policy that no single group should account for more than one-third of students.
"It's tempting, because you could make lots of money," said the school's director, Calum MacKechnie, during a morning tour.
The scene at York is being duplicated across Canada as universities make the most of Saudi Arabia's massive scholarship program, which is footing the bill for about 62,000 students to attend foreign universities. Roughly 10,000 Saudi students are studying at Canadian institutions, including Dalhousie and the University of New Brunswick, and thousands more are on the way.
In the space of two years, this country has become the third most popular destination for students from the oil-rich nation, behind Britain and the United States. It's a trend that promises needed relief for Canadian campuses as they struggle with funding shortfalls.
Governments and schools are rolling out the welcome mat. At a recent fundraising dinner, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty looked to Australia, where educating foreign students is the country's third-largest industry, as an example to be emulated. "We could use the funds this generates to help expand our schools for our kids and create jobs," he said. "We could attract the best and brightest from around the world to study here."
For the Saudi students, life in Canada begins with months of language training and the hunt for a spot in a field of study that has the blessing of their government. Hassan Alshihi, 29, who is living through his first Canadian winter, wants to do an MBA. But after six months studying English, his application has not been accepted. "It's cold but it is safe," he said when asked why he chose Toronto.
Mohammed Aldabbagh has had better luck. A confident 18-year-old from Jeddah who picked up English on family trips to England, he has secured a place this fall at York, provided he completes his language courses. Saudis talk, he says, and the new trend is to come to Canada. It's easier to get a visa here than for the United States, and the countries and education systems are similar. "Some say [Canada]is better," he said.
Manal Al-Johani, 27, a tiny woman in a fuchsia head scarf and large down coat, says she misses her home, but her days are filled with school work and preparing applications. An accountant, she is applying to master's programs and hopes to go on to a PhD. "The education is good here," she said.
Privately, one campus leader was skeptical about the Saudi government's new-found interest in liberal education. As Canadian campuses increasingly do business with foreign countries, they must not shy away from confronting issues in those nations such as restrictions on human rights and academic freedom, the leader said.
But there is no questioning the financial boost to Canadian universities. The swelling numbers of well-funded Saudi students, who arrive with extra dollars for language training and research, are a particular boon to the bottom line of schools in parts of the country that are facing declining enrolment. Beyond that, university leaders say such academic encounters are bound to pay off in other ways - in greater understanding between two very different cultures, and in the creation of informal networks.
Dalhousie University president Tom Traves led a delegation of presidents from four Canadian universities on a trip to the Gulf state earlier this year. Their visit coincided with a recruiting fair in Riyadh that was expected to draw representatives from 40 Canadian schools and organizations.
The deep-pocketed Saudi government, attempting to move beyond its economic dependence on oil, gives its students studying abroad full-tuition scholarships and thousands in monthly "salary" payments to cover expenses. The program also covers 18 months of language training and provides "bench fees" of between $5,000 and $10,000 to universities that accept students into their graduate programs.
Such funding "by Canadian standards is remarkable," Dr. Traves said. To attract and fund graduate students, researchers usually must use money from their own budgets, he noted. But because the Saudi students come without these costs, they will enable researchers to spread tight budgets among more students. A lab with funding to support two graduate students could expand to four if two were Saudi, he explained.
Their numbers also will provide critical mass for some programs, and broaden the experience of Canada students. "At this point, it looks like a win-win," Dr. Traves said.Report Typo/Error