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Geoff Wilmshurst, Camosun College, Canada

Canada’s international education sector has undergone huge upheaval in the last couple of years. Geoff Wilmshurst, director of Camosun International at Camosun College in British Columbia, talks to The PIE about the country’s national strategy for the sector, branding challenges and recruiting in smaller markets.

The PIE: What kind of institution is Camosun?

"If you don’t start to diversify, we could see something dramatic happen if there was an economic downturn in one of those key markets or a regulatory change"

GW: Camosun is a public post-secondary college with 12,000 full time students and two campuses in Victoria. We are one of the largest colleges in the province and the most comprehensive.

“We are one of the largest colleges in the province and the most comprehensive”

We’re comprehensive, so that means we have programmes that range all the way from arts and sciences to sports management. We have a very large school of business and the largest accounting programme in BC, so we have three four-year programmes: the Bachelor of Business Administration, another in Sports Fitness Leadership, the other in Athletic & Exercise Therapy, so sports is a big part of what we do. We also have all the trades and technologies so welding, carpentry, engineering and health.

The PIE: How many international students do you have?

GW: We have 1,200 international students, about 10% of the full time student population.

A lot of what we do is university transfer: students come to us for one or two years and we transfer their credits to one of the BC universities to finish their degree, which is a key feature of the British Columbia higher education system.

You can enter into what’s called a UT or a degree program; you can also go from a UT into a degree program or into a diploma. The vast majority of students start with the idea that they will transfer; however, many stay with Camosun to finish their degrees.

The PIE: Where do your international students come from?

GW: 50% are from China and then the remaining 50% are from India and Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Russia plus another 45 countries.

The PIE: You were talking about pulling some resources out of China into the new markets for student recruitment.

“We have a very good reputation in China, the positive feedback from current students generates more students. Therefore we don’t need to do as much in China”

GW: It’s not pulling resources out; let’s say not putting as many resources as we have in the past. We have a very good reputation in China, the positive feedback from current students generates more students. Therefore we don’t need to do as much in China. So I would say the focus now is new resources that are going in to other markets to try to develop other markets, to diversify the student population.

The PIE: Tell me a bit more about those new markets you’re moving into.

GW: We are already active in a lot of new markets. India is a relatively new market for us; it’s only been three years since we’ve had a significant number of Indian students. We have someone based in Chandigarh who works for us, so we’re spending a lot of time in that market, especially in parts that people don’t typically go to.

Another market that we put a lot of resources into is Russia, especially eastern Russia and eastern Siberia, which geographically are much closer to British Columbia. Vietnam is another one that’s been coming up for us; Hong Kong dipped and now it’s coming back. Other areas we’re looking at are Colombia, Brazil, lots of Science Without Borders students that have added a wonderful cultural diversity to the college. We see a resurgent interest from Japan and South Korea and have recently entered into markets in southern Africa and the Middle East.

The PIE: You’ve said that fairs aren’t always the best way to go for student recruitment.

“I think anyone would tell you that there are very few students coming from a fair, especially if you’re not attached to an agent”

GW: Fairs, especially the large ones, are a branding tool and they are important to do, especially when you’re starting off in a market because you have to have a presence. We do some of the large fairs where we want to get our name out there. I think anyone would tell you that there are very few students coming from a fair, especially if you’re not attached to an agent, because there’s no follow-up. You can get their information, send them an email and a link, but that rarely leads to an actual enrolment. So our approach is primarily smaller ones organised by agents and we’re focused on slightly smaller markets and secondary cities.

The PIE: What do you make of Canada’s global brand – Toronto and Vancouver are the biggest names, but could more be done to raise awareness of other areas?

GW: We have a lot of work to do, it’s a tough global brand because if you ask somebody ‘What do you know about Canada?’, invariably they’re going to tell you that they know Toronto and they may know Vancouver, and beyond that they don’t know much. So getting past that is hard work and yes, we have a federal strategic plan, but we don’t really have a federal or national approach to marketing. We have a small approach to that but not like Australia where there’s very clearly an Australian brand and a lot of money behind it. We simply don’t have that kind of money.

The other thing is because provinces are responsible for education, the branding tends to happen at the provincial level, which is why BC has been very successful. We have BCCIE, they’ve done a great job of marketing BC as a destination. We have our own provincial strategy to have 50% more students over four years and I suspect if we’re not already there we’re quite close to that.

“Immigration policy has moved hugely forward in the last five years”

The PIE: There’s a lot of bureaucracy to deal with when it comes to marketing and funding.

GW: $6m has been dedicated to the Imagine Canada brand, but $6m is a very small amount of money for what we’re up against, our English language competitors. We’re not competing at that level. But where Canada competes and I think on the federal level where we’re most effective is on the immigration policy side. Immigration policy has moved hugely forward in the last five years. We all like beating up on Citizenship and Immigration Canada, but compared to where we were five or 10 years ago we’re way, way further ahead.

The postgraduate work permit programme is a big attraction. And we have two special programmes in China and India – and the plan is to extend it to Vietnam – which allows students to buy what’s called a Guaranteed Investment Certificate (GIC) for $10,000 [an investment made under the Student Partner Program Visa, where funds are then drip-fed into the student’s bank account over 12 months to cover living expenses]. That’s really improved the landscape for colleges, really dramatically. We still have pockets where it’s very hard to get study permits for students coming from some parts of the world, we’re always fighting for the chance to try and open up the market, but it’s steadily getting better.

The PIE: How have you been affected by the new regulations around international student advisors that came in in June?

“That’s been our argument all along: that we know what we’re talking about, we give good advice”

GW: That was a step backward, but the ICCRC agreed in December to allow international student advisors to gain a limited licence to provide student specific visa advice. CBIE has been working with the ICCRC on this intensively in the past few months and there will soon be an opportunity for experienced ISAs to challenge an examination. I certainly view this as excellent news and a very positive step forward.

The reality is that colleges and universities have been doing this kind of work for 30+ years, so that’s been our argument all along: that we know what we’re talking about, we give good advice.

The PIE: If there was one element you could add to Canada’s international education strategy, what would it be?

GW: What I’d really like is a continued openness between the industry and CIC. Our international trade people, I have to say, both provincial and federal in all of our markets, realise that education is an incredibly important export for Canada and are working really closely with us. They will in turn work with immigration colleagues and we do have access to immigration colleagues a lot of the time.

We are in a situation now where, talking about risk, Camosun has around 50% Chinese students, there’s a lot of institutions with very similar kinds of numbers, whether it’s China, India or a different market. If you don’t start to diversify, we could see something dramatic happen if there was an economic downturn in one of those key markets or a regulatory change. So I would say diversification of markets and support for that by making visas possible in newer markets.

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