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Mark Lautens is a professor at the University of Toronto and AstraZeneca Endowed Chair of Organic Chemistry.

International students have been front-and-centre in the news in recent weeks, and mostly not in a good way. They are portrayed as much-needed sources of cash to balance the books at some educational institutions, or held responsible for chronic shortages of housing and escalating rents.

But let’s be clear: our top colleges and universities are highly selective in choosing from the many outstanding students who apply domestically and internationally. If immigration is viewed as too high, I am not sure that the solution is cutting back on a talented pool of creative, energetic and mobile knowledge-seekers who will secure a Canadian education. If the real problem is diploma mills where enrolment is more a ticket to immigration than to an education, or a source of cheap labour, then let’s tackle those problems at the source, rather than paint all students with the same brush.

Immigration Minister Marc Miller has clearly recognized there is a problem, based on his recent announcements. But will increasing the price to enter Canada tackle the deeper structural issues, including those faced by universities?

The other facts being lost in the recent debate are the significant differences between doctoral students and undergraduates. For example, undergraduates from abroad typically pay higher tuition fees than domestic students, because international students do not count when provinces send per-student payments to institutions. Their tuition fees thus more closely reflect the true cost of an education. We compete globally for these highly qualified undergraduates, and having a diverse student population is a positive, not a negative.

Globe editorial: When it comes to international students, ‘show me the money’ is only half a policy

Although hosting international students for a doctoral degree is an expensive proposition, it pays huge short- and long-term dividends. In the chemistry department at the University of Toronto, the number of applications from international students grew from 45 to nearly 200 a year over the past eight years, yet the number of international doctoral admissions has remained steady at four to six annually. Do the math: these are outstanding individuals, usually on par with the best domestic applicants.

Yet domestic students still predominate. Assuming that getting a PhD on average takes just over five years, we have about 30 of these outstanding international students in the department at any time, compared with 175 domestic doctoral students.

Why, one might ask, do we take any international doctoral students at all given the limited provincial grants covering them, and the widely recognized shortfalls in federal funding for research and research personnel?

One obvious reason is the quality of the applicants. As well, some research topics are less appealing to domestic students, but popular with international ones, even though the relevant expertise could be very valuable to Canada if these students stay on. This positive side effect has been seen in fields such as artificial intelligence and data science that are now in high demand.

It is also important to remember that this international movement of graduate students represents a globalization of research and scholarship that is in every country’s interest. Many Canadian graduate students also go abroad, and many, though not all, return. I spent six years in the United States for a PhD and postdoctoral stay, both (partly) supported by Canadian scholarships.

As many will know, students and faculty have been protesting the number and value of scholarships and stipends to our domestic doctoral researchers. We also offer too few inducements for international doctoral students to come to Canada. In this regard, it is unfortunate that a blue-ribbon panel commissioned by the Ontario government recently made multiple recommendations about funding domestic undergraduate education, but had less to say about supporting international doctoral students.

Finally, it’s worth considering the advantages Canada gains when some of these international doctoral students stay after completing their degrees. They arrive with excellent credentials from strong universities, and not a cent of Canadian money was spent educating them. So far from being the unskilled immigrants portrayed by some, these individuals bring superb skills and a passion to succeed to their new home. They are superbly positioned to help Canada achieve a more productive and innovative future. And those who return to their home countries become informal ambassadors for Canada, potential customers for Canadian goods, and partners with Canadian businesses.

In short, newly arrived doctoral students don’t come here to bypass normal immigration processes. These remarkable young people are a boon to Canada who should be welcomed warmly and supported more generously.

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