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The State of Internationalization in Canada

Ken Steele delivered some introductory comments in an opening plenary at the CBIE 2011 conference,
“Great Expectations: Achieving Our Ambitions in International Education,” in Ottawa on November 21, 2011.

This conference may take its name from one of Charles Dickens’ best-known novels, Great Expectations.  But from another of his works, A Tale of Two Cities (certainly an exchange program of some sort), I’ll cite his opening words: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” It’s a time of upheaval for higher education worldwide, and therefore a time of opportunity for Canada.  I just hope we don’t squander the brief window of opportunity.

There’s no question that international enrolments have become big business in Canada.

  • Last month, the AUCC reported an 11% increase in international enrolments here in Canada, and a fourfold increase in the past 16 years.  There are now just over 100,000 international students on Canadian university campuses, here from more than 200 countries.
  • A study released by DFAIT in November 2009 estimated that international students contribute more than $6.5 billion to the Canadian economy annually, and create more than 83,000 jobs.
  • Yet, studies have consistently found that Canada lags well behind the US, Britain, Australia, Germany, and France in global market share for international students.
  • GMAC statistics this fall show that 57% of GMAT tests taken for Canadian business schools were by students abroad, and that Canada is the third most popular destination for international MBA students, after the US and the UK.  I’ve often felt that business schools are a bellwether for Canadian higher education, and their success suggests to me that Canada ought to be third in global market share for higher education generally.

Clearly we will need to do better, to attract international students and future citizens to Canada.  Last February, Rick Miner published his report, “People without Jobs, Jobs without People,” underscoring the fact that Canada will need 4.4 million more skilled workers by 2031.  While we can increase post-secondary participation and retrain mid-life workers, we’re going to need to significantly increase immigration to meet the labour market demands.  International student recruitment, and post-degree work visas, are the most obvious way to do that.

Two years ago, the Observatory on Borderless Education counted 162 international branch campuses, mostly from Anglophone countries: 78 from US institutions, 14 from Australia, 13 from Britain and 13 from India. Canada had just 6 – half the number of international campuses that India had established!

  • We’ve also seen several expensive failures of international branch campuses in the last year. Boston-based Suffolk University closed its branch campus in Senegal after losing $10 million.  Michigan State closed its campus in Dubai, George Mason University closed its campus in the UAE, and Troy University closed campuses in Germany, Guam, and Sri Lanka.
  • These were international ventures with “Great Expectations.”  Some American college leaders defended such failures as “inevitable” when institutions are experimenting – but obviously, this isn’t a laboratory test, it’s a major investment in a new market.  Better market research and planning is the way to minimize losses on so-called “experiments” such as these.

This fall we saw many Canadian institutions announce record-breaking international enrolments:

Several international initiatives also moved forward this year:

In the past year or so, we’ve seen major government initiatives to support internationalization:

Since 9/11, Canada has had an unprecedented opportunity to gain market share as the US tightened its visa restrictions, and in the past two years our other major competitors have also suffered serious setbacks:

  • Australia was growing its international enrolments by 10% a year, but this fall announced a 2.5% decrease for the first time – and a 20% drop in visa applications. In fact, visa applications from India dropped 63% this year. University officials in Australia blame tightened visa restrictions, a rising Australian dollar, increased competition from other countries, and of course, massive negative PR fallout from a series of violent attacks on visiting Indian students. But Australia loosened the visa restrictions 2 months ago, so the decline may reverse in time for next fall.
  • Japanese universities delayed the start of their school year after the tsunami and Fukushima reactor breach this past March. Part-time foreign instructors cancelled their teaching contracts, 5 students died in the tsunami, and many others were missing. Japanese institutions were bracing for a steep drop in foreign students this fall.
  • Universities in the UK have been clobbered with massive tuition hikes, making them the most expensive public universities in the world, at almost £10,000 per year in tuition.  To add insult to injury, a recent study concluded that changes to Britain’s visa system would reduce the number of visas issued to students’ dependents by 100,000 over the next 4 years, and this past June, Britain’s Home Office announced that it would reduce the number of student visas issued in the next 4 years by more than a quarter million.

So, in the past two years, our major international competitors have suffered serious blows.  Yet the US is now strengthening its dominant market share in international education: 

And of course, Canada has experienced some PR setbacks of its own:

  • In April this year, a Chinese York University student, Qian Liu, was killed in her Toronto apartment in a high-profile case.
  • UBC masters student Rumana Monzur was beaten and left blind by her ex-husband when she returned home to Bangladesh this spring. As UBC president Stephen Toope told the media, it was “a poignant marker of the need to work to protect the fundamental human right of all women to pursue education.”
  • But unfortunately, as one international student told the media, “My parents say Canada is not a safe country.”

Since Academica Group’s first UCAS Applicant Survey, over 15 years ago, Canadian colleges and universities have increasingly discovered the power of market research to focus their recruitment efforts, refine their institutional messaging, and market to domestic students.  Research data has helped to guide scholarship strategies, capital investments, program renewal, marketing and recruitment.  And government has used market research data to inform policy around student access and tuition fees.

As Canadian institutional and government investments in international recruitment grow, and competition becomes more intense, solid research will be critical to guide policies on visas, tuition and immigration, and institutional strategy for branding, program offerings, recruitment, and marketing.  There has been a flurry of attention given to international recruitment in conferences this year, like this CBIE conference, and theCIEC Synergy conference in October. There have also been a number of major international research projects launched this year, like Academica Group’s ISPS (International Survey of Prospective Students)The time is ripe for solid research to inform government policy and institutional strategies toward internationalization.

Ken Steele

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