If the country's universities were graded on how well we've done at helping Canadians understand the importance international students can play in the country's future, we would receive a failing grade. And I count my own university among those at fault.
That harsh assessment is not to suggest that the postsecondary sector doesn't embrace internationalization. But these students' contribution is so ingrained in university culture that we take for granted that Canadians intrinsically know their vital role in our classrooms and economy.
Too often, the public sees international students as a drain on the system, or as foreigners taking places in universities and colleges that rightfully belong to the sons and daughters of Canadian taxpayers. Neither could be further from the truth.
According to a study by Foreign Affairs and International Canada, international students spent about $8-billion on tuition, accommodations, discretionary spending and associated tourism in 2010. This spending is greater than Canada's export of unwrought aluminum, helicopters, airplanes or spacecraft. The educational services and programs Canada provides abroad form our 11th-largest national export and our single-largest export to China.
But these students' contributions go well beyond their spending power. Studying and engaging with the best young minds from around the world enriches the lives of Canadian students and increases their comfort with different cultures, something they will increasingly need if they are to excel in the global economy.
Canada's changing demographics are also a reason we need international students. We want to attract the kind of people who will thrive in Canada and help move our country forward.
Familiarity with Canadians and our culture encourages talented and entrepreneurial international students to remain here. For others, a great educational experience fosters the kind of long-term relationships that open doors to future trade, commerce and cultural opportunities.
Internationalization is also about finding ways for Canadian students to study abroad or take part in service-learning programs. These opportunities help students develop their knowledge, skills and confidence, and can advance their careers through the friendships they forge.
Canada has a strong brand with an excellent reputation for offering the highest quality of education, as well as for being a safe and welcoming country. We have a tremendous opportunity to be a top destination for international students, but we need to recognize that we lag behind other Western countries.
Canada should double the number of international students from 239,000 in 2011 to 450,000 by 2022, which can be done while still accommodating the steady 5-per-cent annual growth in the number of Canadians wanting to attend university or college. But any growth in international students must be accompanied by a strong commitment to maintain the quality of education.
Education is primarily a provincial/territorial responsibility and that should not change. Research shows, however, that international students first choose the country where they wish to study, so it benefits everyone to work together under a common Canadian brand when recruiting.
We also need to target recruitment where we have the greatest potential to attract students – China, India, Brazil, the Middle East, North Africa, Turkey, Vietnam and Mexico – while maintaining our traditional sources of students, including the United States, Britain and France.
Canada also needs to develop a robust and sophisticated digital strategy that provides prospective students with easy access to information on what Canada offers them.
Competitive scholarships are a requirement to attract the best students, and that means both new funding as well as regrouping existing scholarships. At the same time, we should also be creating opportunities for 50,000 Canadian students to study abroad each year, funded by the federal and provincial governments and private donors.
International education, in all its forms, will create economic prosperity for the benefit of Canadians across this land. And it will enable us to continually build on the knowledge and talent Canada needs to succeed on a global scale.
Amit Chakma is president of Western University and chair of the Advisory Panel on Canada's International Education Strategy.