Canada could be missing out on billions of dollars in revenue from education exports as the country, which is sitting in seventh place as a destination, could be much higher up the list.
But low visa processing times, unco-ordinated branding efforts and, according to experts, a general disconnect between Canada's academic institutions and all levels of government are hurting the country's ability to attract international students and offer our higher education outside our borders – which equals billions in lost revenue.
The number of postsecondary students travelling outside their home country for school is expected to increase to 7.2 million by 2025 from 4.1 million in 2010, according to the not-for-profit organization Canadian Bureau for International Education.
And at first glance, Canada's standing on the international stage looks promising, as Canada is the seventh most popular destination for international students, according to the Institute of International Education.
But we have "missed the boat," says Dezso Horvath, dean of York University's Schulich School of Business in Toronto, because Canada has the potential to move higher up the list.
According to the 2012 report Economic Impact of International Education in Canada by Roslyn Kunin and Associates for what is now the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD), international students spend $8-billion in Canada every year through tuition, student spending and government generated revenue, creating 81,000 jobs and making it the nation's eighth highest export.
Today, international students can pay double, even quadruple, the domestic tuition fees, ranging from $8,000 to $35,000 across Canada. And despite putting $5-million into a branding strategy to attract more international students, Canada is missing out, Dr. Horvath says.
Last year, the federal government laid out its plans to double the number of international students coming to Canada for postsecondary education to 450,000 by 2022 – which Ottawa said could equal an estimated increase of $10-billion to the economy and 86,000 more jobs. But a scattered marketing effort may have already put that goal in danger.
"We could be much, much better than we are. We recognized this trend, but Canada is not quite capitalizing on the opportunity," Dr. Horvath says. "We could make education one of the major export sectors for Canada."
While there are government strategies in place – such as the current educational branding strategy called Imagine Education in Canada by DFATD – Dr. Horvath says Canadian postsecondary institutions are still mainly responsible for their own self-promotion to international students.
"What mistake we made, I think, is that we are not co-ordinating anything," Dr. Horvath says. "Some provinces might be interested in promoting their own province, maybe, but mostly it's about promoting individual schools."
Dr. Horvath says he knows all about self-marketing and has talked up his own school all over the globe, "but I have to do it myself, so it's not a co-ordinated effort."
Patricia McQuillan runs her own Toronto-based branding firm, Brand Matters Inc., and echoes Dr. Horvath's concerns over Canada's harmonized branding effort aimed at students overseas.
"We could work on this," she says, "with a more cohesive strategy and more collaboration across areas of business, government and academia.
"[The challenge is] to develop a cohesive Canadian strategy to feature, highlight, promote our academic institutions, and that shouldn't be just a city-specific or a provincial-specific strategy."
Events such as the upcoming Pan American and Parapan American Games in Toronto in July are opportunities Canada could use to market the Canadian education system to potential international students and the "gatekeepers" – their parents, Ms. McQuillan says.
"We have a very pure image abroad and we should be leveraging that," she adds.
And visas are proving another great hurdle after an international student decides to attend a Canadian postsecondary school.
A Citizen and Immigration Canada (CIC) report, obtained last month by The Globe and Mail through freedom of information legislation, outlines a 30-per-cent increase in processing times for study permits and cites lack of resources allotted by the government to help process the increased application numbers.
Even if the process becomes more streamlined in the near future, the reputation Canada has as a complex or slow visa processor could still hurt, explains Jennifer Humphries, vice-president of membership, public policy and communications at the Canadian Bureau of International Education.
"It's really unfortunate because sometimes our offshore processing has been quicker, but because traditionally they're not very fast, even when they get faster we still get a bad rap," Ms. Humphries says, "which makes us a little less attractive than Australia, where processing has gotten down to a fine art."
But Ms. Humphries is quick to say that she thinks Canada is doing a lot of things right when it comes to attracting international students, and recruiting international students at the high-school level is one.
"It used to be that international students would come to do secondary school in Canada mainly to position themselves to study in the United States," she says, adding that the U.S reputation of Ivy League schools was a big draw.
"But increasingly we're finding that postsecondary institutions realize they have to go into the [secondary] school and speak specifically to those international students," Ms. Humphries says, and it is working. "Now they are not ignoring Canada as that postsecondary destination."