As the Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives in China today, recruiting foreign students to come study in Canada is a top priority. Why? Billions of dollars are at stake making education one of Canada's most valuable exports.
China already sends the largest pool of international students to Canada and the potential to grow is tremendous.
The problem: Canada was far behind such leaders as the United States, Britain and Australia as a destination choice for education. Its market share slid to 4.4 per cent in 2008 from 5.05 per cent in 2000, according to a 2009 report prepared for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. International students contribute $6.5 billion to the Canadian economy every year.
The federal government has made a $10-million, two-year commitment made in the 2011 budget towards developing an international education strategy and attracting students from overseas. Western University's president Amit Chakma heads the advisory panel that will make recommendations likely in April to the government on how best Canada can go about doing just that. To the best of his knowledge, Dr. Chakma said he is the only educational delegate joining the prime minister in China
The Globe interviewed Dr. Chakma in a phone interview from Beijing.
What do you hope to accomplish on your trip to China?
I'm here in my role as the chair of the advisory panel and hope to learn about opportunities for us to grow in China. Not just recruiting students from China, but also sending our own Canadian students abroad so that they can benefit. We need to meet with our education partners in China, learn about the country's overall economic situation and their perception of Canada, visit schools and campuses where we have Canadian partnerships and see what's working and what isn't for other countries, such as U.K. and Australia. The other goal is to raise the profile of the education sector in Canada. When you have the prime minister and several ministers coming, it's a good opportunity to talk about what Canada has to offer.
China holds the largest market share of all international students coming to Canada. Do you see still see it as our primary market going forward or is the focus shifting to India and Brazil?
Great question. If we continue to grow our share of international students, then it stands to reason given how large the Chinese population is that we should a large number of students from there. That being said, I think there will be a shift towards more students from India and Brazil. I don't know if the numbers matter so much as diversifying our portfolio of students. The focus should be on having a broad range in our educational sector.
Why has Canada been lagging behind these other countries in terms of recruiting international students?
Well, part of it, is of course historical. Our postsecondary institutions simply haven't been around for as long as say, Oxford. I think we're far more comparable to Australia, which is also a relatively new country. Their geopolitical strategy was to shift from the traditional European markets and become a decidedly more Asian country. They made a very conscious decision to use education as a diplomatic and trade tool, and we didn't. I suppose we didn't feel much of a need, because of our institutions in Canada have been regionally or provincially focused. We just didn't pay much attention internationally. So in some ways, we're definitely at a disadvantage. But in another way, I think the panel also has an advantage because we get to learn from the mistakes that other countries made.
What's next for the panel?
We've finished our consultations with our stakeholders in Canada and will be making a trip later this month to China and India and our goal is to meet with local embassies, see what kind of work is being done at the ground level. We're working very hard to have the recommendations ready before the deadline in June – and I'm hoping we'll be done by April.
You came to Canada as an international student, did you not?
Exactly, and that's one of the reasons I really am behind this internationalization strategy. I grew up in Bangladesh and left after Grade 12 to study chemical engineering in Algeria. I then moved to Vancouver as a masters student at UBC. And that was honestly one of the best decisions I made. To move to another country, without speaking any Arabic or French, was both shocking and painful. But it opened my mind to a culture I had never experienced before and every time I moved to another province, I learned something new. Those experiences really inform your understanding of the world.
What shape do you see Canada's international education strategy taking when the report comes out this spring?
One of our challenges with this panel is actually domestic … trying to convince people that internationalization is important for our students. Sometimes I feel people don't get why we're investing in international students. But look, if I could do only one thing for all my students at Western, I would send them abroad, even if it's only for a week. When I came to Western in 2009, only three per cent of our students were international students. Now, it's closer to seven per cent, which I think is a big improvement. There isn't the right proportion and each university will have to look at its own goals. But at Western, I would like to see a mid-term goal of 10 per cent. But it's also very important for us to show that this is a two-way street. This strategy isn't going to work if all we do is focus on bringing more students from abroad to Canada. We also need to be sending our students overseas. It's not about bringing international students, but the internationalization of the education sector overall.
This interview has been edited and condensed.