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Why Sudbury is an unlikely magnet for global education

This is the first story in a four-part series on how provincial policies are playing out on the ground.

Peter Luk admits it's not an easy sell.

Twice a year, the dean of Laurentian University's management program travels to China in an attempt to persuade students and their families that Sudbury is the place for them. For most, Canada ranks below several other countries as their choice of where to study abroad. A small northern Ontario city known for nickel mining isn't even on the radar.

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And yet, with students drawn by everything from smaller class sizes to the prospect of a more "Canadian" experience than they'd get in a multicultural metropolis such as Toronto, Mr. Luk is finding takers. In 2008, his first year at Laurentian after nearly three decades at Toronto's Ryerson University, he recruited four Chinese students. The next year, it was eight. This year, it was 25.

The trend is reflected across campus. With an aggressive recruitment strategy driven by an ambitious new administration, Laurentian reports that it received 952 international applications in 2010, more than double the total from three years earlier.

All this should warm the heart of Dalton McGuinty, who has said he wants to increase international enrolment at the province's universities by 50 per cent. But it will also test just what the Ontario Premier's push for foreign students really means, and what its legacy will be.

Laurentian's success goes to show that, with the right effort, even relatively remote campuses can attract international talent. But what remains to be seen is how many newcomers will stick around after graduation.

Mr. McGuinty has spoken endlessly about the need for Ontario to move from manufacturing to a knowledge economy. That's one thing in Toronto, or Ottawa, or Kitchener-Waterloo, which don't lack for human capital. But it's quite another for Ontario's version of the Rust Belt - smaller cities with roots firmly in manual labour.

There could hardly be a better test case than Sudbury, a town that has worked harder than most to reinvent itself, but still struggles to gain respect. Either it will provide the model for getting newcomers to live off the beaten track, or prove it can't be done.

Stompin' who?

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This is not Stompin' Tom's Sudbury.

Nor is it the Sudbury of recent media reports - a hard-scrabble place on the verge of collapse during the 11-month Vale Inco strike that ended earlier this year. Instead, most of the city's surprising sprawl looks like a chunk of suburbia airlifted into cottage country.

This did not happen by accident. It came as a reaction to the grim reality Sudbury faced in the 1970s, when mining was the only game in town.

"Every time the price of nickel was down, the economy was down," Mayor John Rodriguez recalls. "It was boom and bust, boom and bust, boom and bust."

In the mid-1970s, it busted hard, with thousands of layoffs at Inco and Falconbridge, the two major employers.

Then came the real wake-up call - a 1978-79 Inco strike that effectively shut down the city compelled local leaders to cobble together a plan to shift Sudbury away from manpower and toward brain power.

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"Richard Florida can't tell us anything we didn't discover from our experience," Mr. Rodriguez says, slamming a copy of Mr. Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class onto his coffee table for effect. "We didn't have the benefit of Richard Florida back in 1980. But we sure as hell had a clear idea that we wanted to diversify our economic base."

In the 1980s and 1990s, with a major infusion of provincial cash, that diversification took flight. The university was expanded, and a new francophone college opened. Health care became a priority, including a new medical school and cancer research centre. The provincial Ministry of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry was relocated from Toronto. Science North opened as a kid-friendly tourist attraction. Big sums were invested in greening a city that once resembled a moonscape.

Most importantly, a concerted effort was made to build on the city's past by becoming a leader in mining technology that could be used elsewhere - an evolution in which Sudbury plays host to hundreds of companies.

When Inco (now Vale Inco, under Brazilian ownership) went on strike last year, only 3,000 employees were out of work - down from 15,000 in the late 1970s. It was unpleasant, but didn't shut the city down.In the strike's final months, the local unemployment rate actually declined.

It's a hopeful story for blue-collar company towns that aim to be something more. But for a really happy ending, Sudbury won't be able to rely just on its own born and bred.

As populations age, most Western cities need a steady flow of newcomers. That's especially the case for a smaller northern outpost that will always see a chunk of its youth head for Toronto or other larger cities.

And that's where the magnetic pull of higher education comes in.

Settlement issues

Laurentian has buzz. Having served for most of its history largely as a default option for kids who grew up in Sudbury or parts north, it's reinventing itself as a school that excels in certain fields - largely sciences that can be put to use in natural resource development.

The shift has accelerated since last year's appointment of Dominic Giroux - a 34-year-old ball of energy who was a rising star in the provincial civil service - as the university's president.

Particularly encouraging, from the perspective of building human capital, is the university's increasing focus on attracting foreign students and its graduate programs, who, according to the Council of Ontario Universities, are more likely to find work in Canada than undergraduates.

The province recently took measures to encourage graduate students to stay by introducing rules that will allow those with PhDs to be fast-tracked for permanent residency even before they find jobs - a provision that may eventually be extended to those who've earned masters degrees.

But whether those who stay in Ontario will stay in Sudbury is a different matter. No statistics are available for how many students settle locally, but Mr. Luk estimates it's only about 10 per cent.

Part of the problem could be that Laurentian's campus, a spacious green property adjacent to a beach and a golf course, sits like an island within the city. Students who come from elsewhere can easily resist integrating themselves into a car-centric city with limited multiculturalism.

Revitalizing the downtown, which Mr. Rodriguez candidly acknowledges is "ratty" next to the retail-heavy newer parts of town, is a priority. Toward that end, Mr. Giroux is championing a new architecture school that - if provincial funding comes through - would be in the core. The idea is that the building itself, to be designed by the internationally renowned (and Sudbury-bred) Bruce Mau, would bring new life to the cityscape. So would having hundreds of students attending classes downtown.

But most everyone acknowledges that by far the biggest factor in keeping newcomers around is interesting, well-paid work in their chosen field.

In interviews, a Chinese student and a Brazilian student expressed a desire to stay in Canada. They're willing to give Sudbury a chance, but they'll go where opportunity lies.

Universities can help create that opportunity by connecting students to local employers through work programs. The federal government loosened restrictions on student visas four years ago to allow off-campus work, and Laurentian - like most schools - still hasn't fully taken advantage of it.

But ultimately, employers must have enough high-end jobs to keep graduates around permanently. And For all of Sudbury's progress, that's where the constraints typical for northern Ontario cities still fall leave it short.

Looking to the 'Ring of Fire'

From an inadequate transportation system to soaring energy prices, there are all sorts of impediments to creating attractive jobs in the north. And Mr. Rodriguez, like many northern Ontarians, thinks the province is failing falling down in addressing them.

"You need a different creative class of people," he says. "And we've got an education infrastructure that can deliver that. But what's the point, if they can't find the jobs here? So they'll ultimately leave us, and they have been leaving us."

Mr. Rodriguez cites the emergence of chromite mining in the "Ring of Fire" in the province's northwest as an opportunity to capitalize on Sudbury's resources, rather than shipping raw material overseas to have value added.

"You heard it here first," he says. "That chromite is going to come down to the CN line, and it'll go on ocean containers. It'll ship all the way out to Prince Rupert, right onto the ships, and they'll go all the way to China. And we'll buy back stainless steel."

He can be forgiven for being a tad dramatic. For all Sudbury's progress, its geography means it will have to scratch and claw to maintain it.

It is precisely the sort of reinvented economy that Mr. McGuinty's government is supposed to be helping. The Premier is getting the foreign students he wants. Next, he'll need more of a plan to put that human capital to good use.

Peter Luk can get them here. Others will have to make them want to stay.

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Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More

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