Northern Exposure

Country steps up its recruitment of international students with a goal of attracting more skilled immigrants.

September 23, 2014
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In conversations about international student recruitment in the United States, some things are taken as given: the decentralization of the landscape and the absence of a coordinated recruitment strategy at either the national or state level (save for some consortiums that are narrowly focused on marketing of a specific state), and the perceived difficulty of transitioning from student to permanent resident status if that’s what students desire. 

The U.S. hosts more international students than any other country, but while the number of international students at American universities continues to grow, the country's share of the world’s globally mobile students is dropping: the latest figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development show that while the U.S. attracted 23 percent of all international students in 2000, it hosted 16 percent in 2012. For a useful exercise in comparison and contrast it might look to its neighbor to the north, Canada, whose share, though far smaller, has been growing, and where both the federal and provincial governments are paying increasing attention to international student recruitment as part of a broader skilled immigration strategy. The number of international students in Canada has increased by 84 percent in 10 years, to 293,505 in 2013, according to the Canadian Bureau for International Education, and OECD figures show that Canada's share of the world’s students has increased from 4.5 percent in 2000 to 4.9 percent in 2012.

“Canada hasn’t been very active on this issue until very recently,” said Glen A. Jones, a professor of higher education at the University of Toronto. “What we saw across the country was simply the sum of what individual institutions are doing and it’s really only in the last two years, I would say, maybe three, where we see a situation where the various governments are looking at this as a strategic priority that we should be investing in.”

“You’ve got a couple of things that have come together,” Jones explained. “One is that people have become increasingly aware of the notion of international education as a kind of industry. In other words, this is something that can generate revenue and it’s not just revenue for the institutions; it’s revenue for the communities in which they’re situated.”

Canada’s first federal international education strategy, released in January, called for doubling the number of international students, to 450,000, by 2022, and pledged modest sums in support of those aims: ongoing funds of $5 million per year for marketing and branding Canada as an educational destination and $13 million over two years for a specific program that supports mobility between Canada and Brazil, China, India, Mexico, Turkey and Vietnam. The strategy document also articulated the objective of increasing the number of international students who choose to remain in Canada as permanent residents after graduation.

“Our government recognizes that international education is a key driver of jobs and prosperity in every region of Canada,” Ed Fast, the minister of international trade, said in a statement at the time of the strategy's release. 

The federal strategy was, as most agree, thin on detail. As Alex Usher, the president of the Toronto-based Higher Education Strategy Associates, has critiqued it, the strategy discusses increasing international enrollment without addressing issues of capacity, “[i]t shows no obvious signs of being conversant with international education markets, how students choose their destination countries, or how students subsequently choose a country of residence”; and it represents Canada's reputation abroad in too rosy a fashion by ignoring negative findings from market research commissioned by the government in China, India and Brazil. (From the market research report: “There is no awareness that Canada has world-class educational establishments, indeed, apart from a few mentions of University of Toronto there is very little awareness of any Canadian educational establishments. While participants believe that Canada as a developed country must have an adequate level of education, there is no perception of a Canadian education advantage compared to others.”)

“It’s not a strategy,” Usher said in an interview. “It’s a vague statement of intent with some specific numbers attached to it for no good reason.”

Usher contrasted Canada’s strategy with New Zealand’s much more detailed one and said that while Canada has a lot of advantages as an international student destination – among them a reasonable cost of living and the reputation of being a tolerant society -- Canada’s presence in international student recruiting is nowhere near that of its competitors. “We’re not top of mind at all,” he said. “We’re very much a second or a third choice. A lot of the growth we’ve had over the years has had to do with the U.S. has run into a problems on a number of fronts and Australia has run into problems on a number of fronts and the U.K. is determined to not let in foreign students all of a sudden for some reason. There is an element of being a kid who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.”

But others say that the mere existence of a federal international education strategy in a country that never had one before represents a significant step forward and that the appropriations associated with it, though relatively small, are certainly welcome. And beyond the federal level, several of the provinces – which under the Canadian constitution have authority for education -- have issued strategies or action plans calling for increases in international students, including Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Quebec. 

British Columbia’s strategy, released in 2012, called for a 50 percent increase in international students over four years, or an additional 47,000 students by 2016. According to figures provided by the provincial government, 112,800 international students attended British Columbia’s K-12 schools, private language institutions and universities in 2012-13, representing 20 percent growth from the baseline figure of 94,000 included in the strategy.  The British Columbia government also reports a 28 percent increase in direct spending by international students.  

“We’re now firmly on the radar for the government in terms of immediate economic development,” said Randall Martin, the executive director of the government-supported British Columbia Council for International Education. “International education is now the fourth-largest export industry in the province. But as our own aging demographics are better realized we have to look to immigration and labor market development and a large part of that is, 'Let’s look at these bright young international students who we’ve now educated.' ”

In the maritime provinces, where the demographic challenges associated with Canada's aging population are especially acute, “we’ve always held the view that the best source of new immigrants is international students” said Peter Halpin, the executive director of the Association of Atlantic Universities. “And I think I can say with confidence that our four provincial governments in the region absolutely agree.” Halpin noted, for example, that Nova Scotia recently expanded its provincial nominee program, through which the provinces and territories are able to nominate candidates for immigration to Canada, to include international students. 

"The way I describe it is that government has become a partner with postsecondary education with regard to the immigration pathway," said Clayton Smith, the vice provost for student affairs and dean of students at the University of Windsor, in Ontario, and formerly a senior enrollment manager at several American institutions. "Whereas in the U.S., international students, they filled our institutions and they were supposed to be ambassadors for the U.S. when they went home."

A 2013 survey of 1,509 international students by the Canadian Bureau for International Education found that nearly half (46 percent) say they plan to apply for permanent residency. In addition to the various provincial nominee programs and a federal skilled worker immigration stream that Ph.D. graduates may qualify for, international students can also apply for permanent residency through the Canadian Experience Class program, which was created in 2008.

Data included in CBIE's 2013 report on international education in the country show that the number of international students transitioning directly from student to permanent resident actually fell from 11,010 in 2008 to 8,667 in 2010, but that figure (the most recent available) doesn't include students who take the popular route of moving into temporary worker status first. The number of students who are receiving post-graduation temporary work permits and extensions increased by 21 percent from 2011 to 12 -- from 22,680 to 27,341 -- partially a consequence of changes to the program that, among other things, no longer require students to have a job offer in hand in order to apply. 

Jennifer Humphries, CBIE's vice president for membership, public policy and communications, added that another recent change to Canadian immigration policy of note is that many current students no longer have to apply for a separate off-campus work permit; their study permit automatically allows them to work up to 20 hours per week during the academic year and full-time during breaks.

“Canada makes it relatively easy for them, if that’s their decision, to stay,” said Jones, of the University of Toronto. “Things keep changing, there’s been a number of different policies, but there’s no doubt that international student recruitment and immigration are directly linked in a lot of people’s minds."

Fanta Aw, the assistant vice president for campus life at American University and the president of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, contrasted Canada’s conception of international student recruitment as part of a skilled immigration pipeline with the U.S.’s more ambivalent approach toward international student employment after graduation, which typically involves 12 months of optional practical training (OPT), a possible 17-month OPT extension for students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, then, perhaps, an H-1B visa for which you need employer sponsorship and for which there are more applicants than spots. “In most other places there’s been a more direct relationship between trade, economy and education in a way that is not made here in the U.S.,” Aw said.

Aw noted, too, that she’s impressed by the involvement of provincial governments like British Columbia’s in promoting international education and wondered why, in the U.S. there hasn’t been more similar activity on the part of individual states. “It really raises the question of what are the barriers to that: is it just benign neglect or are there other driving factors that may explain why this is not happening?” she asked.


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