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Munir Sheikh is the former chief statistician of Canada, deputy minister of labour and associate deputy minister of finance. He teaches public policy at Carleton University.

Canada has a continuing growth problem. Productivity growth, which provides a foundation for rising living standards, is a fraction of what it used to be in the 1980s and 1990s. It has averaged 0.4 per cent annually in Canada over the past five years, continuing on a long-term downward trend.

This is despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s plan in 2015 to place Canada on the path to higher economic growth. The Liberals established an advisory council on economic growth that produced its final report more than four years ago. As the government prepares for its next budget, it must capitalize on Canada’s comparative advantages.

There is a truly important economic advantage that Canada has essentially ignored: the intersection between our systems of university education and immigration. The potential synergy between Canada’s universities and Canadians’ favourable views of immigration creates an imperative to turn low-cost, world-class higher education into our international brand.

The Western world is in great need of immigrants in order to maintain living standards. Canadians understand and accept this at a time when many other Western countries are becoming isolationist.

Canada is unique in the world, having directed itself toward a values system based on the philosophy that people of all races, religions and cultures can actually live together harmoniously and prosperously. Let us expand the size of this beautiful project and strengthen it by linking immigration with university education.

The prestige of a Canadian university education should become that international brand; it would allow us to punch well above our weight. For this to happen, we need public policies that work toward placing at least a few of our universities among the top 10 schools in the world. We currently don’t have any within this elite group, which is generally deemed to include the likes of Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge.

If we do establish a Canadian university brand and streamline our immigration system to fund and fast-track the best and the brightest students from all over the globe, we would have the best of all worlds: an acceleration in our living standards, more productivity and citizens with a greater understanding of their civic responsibilities.

Global research shows that universities promote higher living standards and economic growth. People in Canada with university degrees earn much more than non-graduates, and this gap is expected to widen further as we become more dependent on technology. Evidence also shows that the cost of a university education is considerably less in Canada than in many other countries, especially the United States and Australia, our two closest educational competitors.

Public funding of universities is a great investment, as higher incomes generate higher tax revenues. Over an individual’s working life, this far outstrips the short-term cost of funding their education. Stronger economic growth that outstrips its own cost? Who says there is no free lunch?

Top-class universities can also be a hub for dealing with the future economy’s needs, including the growing shortfall for top talent and the need to accelerate innovation in areas such as artificial intelligence, engineering and the commercialization of new ideas. And we need a comprehensive strategy for producing domestic talent. A talent strategy cannot just be limited to expanding learning in the skilled trades.

Establishing Canadian universities among the best in the world is a tall order and requires at least two initial big steps. First, provinces, with leadership from the federal government, would have to support more university education initiatives for foreign students and find ways to keep them here. Second, federal and provincial governments should increase their public investments in universities.

A look at Ontario suggests our largest province needs to reverse its damaging approach to university funding, which has declined over the past decade. Ontario’s per-student expenditure is the lowest among all provinces, according to research by Higher Education Strategy Associates. The Council of Ontario Universities says there is at least a $10-billion gap between government funding and the need for maintenance and repair on campuses across the province. Ontario’s tuition for international students is also the highest in the country by a wide margin.

At present, we look at international students as a source of funding rather than as an investment in Canada’s future. How long can this go on if we are serious about raising our living standards?

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