Canada should double the number of international students studying here by 2022, a new report commissioned by the federal government says.
The task force responsible for the report, headed by Western University president Amit Chakma, wants Ottawa to boost the number of international students from about 239,130 to 450,000 in 10 years – from kindergarten through Grade 12 and post-secondary institutions – without taking away seats from Canadians.
The 122-page report entitled International Education, a Key Driver of Canada's Future Prosperity, released on Tuesday, makes a connection between attracting international students and filling labour market shortages.
Calling the report's recommendations ambitious, Dr. Chakma said he anticipates most of that recruitment will go to the growing economies of Western Canada.
"Our larger institutions may not have as much capacity to take on [additional] international students ... because they already have been recruiting aggressively, but there is a lot of potential room in our northern institutions and Western provinces," Dr. Chakma said.
International students spent a total of $8-billion in Canada during 2010, up from $6.5-billion in 2008.
"There aren't too many sectors that have shown that degree of growth, especially during the economic recession," said Paul Davidson, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.
The Conservatives put aside $10-million in their 2011 budget for the advisory panel on attracting the top young talent globally and catching up with countries such as the United States, Britain and Australia.
But aside from the immediate boost to the economy, international students are often seen as prime candidates to immigrate, with the established Canadian credentials and work experience for successful application. Even if these students return home, the panel report said, their ties to Canada might develop into business opportunities and diplomatic relations, and generally raise Canada's profile abroad.
The University of Alberta's international student population has already doubled to 10 per cent for undergraduates, and president Indira Samarasekera says there is room to grow.
"Especially in Alberta, parents like to hear that the return on investment is almost immediate with so many job opportunities," she said.
The competition was already fierce for international students.
Countries such as India and China – Canada's top suppliers of international students – are trying to reverse the brain drain. In 2011, India increased higher education spending by 30 per cent while the Chinese government aims to enroll 500,000 international students by 2020, twice the number it now hosts and more than it sends abroad.
"It's dangerous to rely on international students to bring in income for Canadian universities, especially since India and China are expanding rapidly," said Dru Marshall, provost at University of Calgary. "We might not always have access to those students."
Paul Davidson, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada also said the costs of marketing abroad and ensuring international students' needs are met once they arrive in Canada will likely offset much of the potential revenue generation for cash-strapped universities.
Both, however, said the real advantage is in exposing young Canadians minds to other cultures.
That's why the task force also recommended creating 50,000 opportunities per year for Canadian students to go abroad for study and cultural exchanges. About nine in 10 Canadian students go to university in their home province.
Other countries are also trying to buck that trend. Over the next four years, the Brazilian government will spend $2-billion to help send more than 100,000 of its best students to universities globally to help forge future economic ties. Canada will receive about 12,000 of them, the second-highest total of all recipient countries.
The panel, however, shied away from asking Ottawa to commit to a dollar figure on international education investments, saying individual provinces and institutions will have unique needs.
Ottawa will consider these recommendations and possibly incorporate them into a global commerce strategy due in 2013.
Dr. Chakma said Western is prepared to earmark $1,000 and raise another $1,000 from alumni and donors per travelling fellowship, if Ottawa also commits $1,000.
"Unfortunately, the strategy ignores the skyrocketing costs faced by international students," said Adam Awad, national chairman of the Canadian Federation of Students.
Many recruiters say that while Canada has a generally positive name abroad, they have difficulty articulating exactly what its brand is. And considering that education in Canada is primarily a provincial jurisdiction, developing a national brand is a challenge.
Some provinces, such as B.C., have already announced province-specific plans to recruit international students. Even so, Dr. Chakma said a "united front" is needed. That's because research indicates that while students will always seek out well-known schools like Harvard, Oxford and McGill, most choose their international education destination based on a country's reputation.
"Several university presidents went to Brazil, and while we were all promoting our individual institutions, we got much better access and coverage because it was a Canadian mission under a Canadian banner," Dr. Chakma said.
Ms. Samarasekera agreed, adding that "people get confused when you talk about provinces with international students."
"It doesn't mean anything to them ... students don't necessarily want to go to California or Massachusetts; they want to go the United States," she said. "We need to do the same for Canada."