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Community colleges find their weaknesses are also their strengths

From left: Vancouver Community College International students Mutiara Santoso and Parvinder Kaur in class November 24, 2010 in Vancouver.

Laura Leyshon for the Globe and Mail/laura leyshon The Globe and Mail

Postsecondary institutions often sell the "Canadian brand" when recruiting international students – multicultural, cosmopolitan and world-class education at affordable prices. Try selling a community college in rural Canada with that message and it just doesn't fly.

Smaller community colleges are choosing to market themselves differently to boost international recruitment. In a report released in August, a federal advisory board set out an ambitious goal of doubling international student enrolment in Canada across all sectors, including colleges.

What some might consider weaknesses – remote, homogeneous communities with little diversity, smaller institutions – are in fact the selling points for these colleges.

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Many colleges are catering to niche programs – such as Okanagan College in B.C., where Chinese students are coming to learn about Canadian winemaking given their home country's burgeoning wine market. Other colleges, especially those in the Prairie provinces, are heavily promoting health care and skilled trades diplomas in the hopes of eventually filling in labour shortages with international students who decide to stay in Canada.

Most of the attention in Canada has been focused thus far on universities that attract roughly 53 per cent of all international students in Canada in 2010. According to an economic impact report released this year, trades and technical institutions as well as colleges, however, brought in 26 per cent of international students in 2010.

Without waiting for the much-needed cash investments from governments to boost enrolment, the Association of Canadian Community Colleges and its member colleges have taken part in federal government and provincial government education missions to China, India and Brazil. With no national education strategy in Canada, postsecondary institutions often have to rely on their individual reputations to market themselves. But the federal government's interest in bringing in international students is a boon for smaller colleges, said the ACCC's vice-president, Paul Brennan.

"We have smaller resources and only do some marketing at the international level," he said. "But if we go collectively in education missions to recruit students under a Canada umbrella, it can make a big difference for smaller and medium-sized colleges."

Some colleges, especially those in smaller rural areas, market their communities as offering a crash course in English-language immersion.

At the College of the Rockies in Cranbrook, B.C., roughly 5 per cent of their international students come via bigger institutions in Vancouver, citing challenges in learning English in the big city.

Monica Liu-Doyle, who came from China to improve her English-language skills, found it wasn't that easy in Vancouver. While she appreciated eating the familiar cuisine and hearing the sounds of her native Mandarin and even picked up some Cantonese, "that was the total opposite of what I had planned to do."

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She moved to Cranbrook in 2003 and picked up English "much faster" since she had to speak more English.

"There were maybe four Chinese people I found in Cranbrook and none in my classes," she said. "If your goal is to improve your English, definitely you should pick a college in a smaller community."

Other colleges in the Prairies are focusing on providing technical degrees that will help fill shortages in skilled trades and health care.

Red Deer College in Alberta, for example, is starting to target student cohorts from Japan, the Philippines and Eastern Europe for programs such as welding, said its president and CEO Joel Ward.

"There is a big myth that students might not want to come to a college because some of the programs are so specific to getting accreditation in that one specific province," he said. "But we are finding that the students are coming because the standards in Canada are so high that it's helpful even if they go back to their home country."

But more can be done, Mr. Brennan said, requiring more co-ordination to share solid labour-market information from the federal government with recruiting institutions.

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"Citizenship and Immigration Canada has, to its credit, gotten rid of the strong university bias in its immigration-selection criteria, allowing more professionals from the trades and technologies to be accepted," he said.

Misbah Sayed, a marketing student at George Brown College in Toronto, said he was initially planning to attend a university in either Toronto or Calgary instead of a college. Having already completed an undergraduate degree in India, college seemed like a better option, he said. "I wanted to move here, so the fastest way to get Canadian experience was to get a program with some internship and co-op placement," Mr. Sayed said.

"You hear about the big names of these universities and no one talks about George Brown," he said.

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