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Paul Davidson & Mike Mahon, Universities Canada

The PIE caught up with Universities Canada leaders, president Paul Davidson and chair of the board Mike Mahon during the International Higher Education Forum in London. They discussed Canada’s success – and its hiccups – with some markets, the country’s new international education strategy and what lies beyond the 450,000 student goal.


Paul Davidson (L) & Mike Mahon (R)

"The challenge is to continue to enable Canadian universities to remain high-quality, independent institutions"

The PIE: Canada is a success story in international education at the moment, with very attractive policies for international students…

Mike Mahon: We have been very pleased with the evolution of our government’s policy around immigration and I think the opportunity for international students to have work experience as part of their stay in Canada is particularly important.

It is something that Canada values – and this is consistent with Universities Canada’s perspective, but it’s a growing perspective of the government that work-integrated learning is a very important part of the educational experience and that includes international students, both at graduate and undergraduate level.

“Integration of education and work is a brilliant way for students to have the full…experience in Canada”

Our student recruitment has been very good over the past few years, the Canadian brand has continued to grow around the world, but part of that is the brand of the experience. Canada encourages students to stay after graduation, but for those that go home, we want them to talk about a very positive experience in Canada.

And I think that this integration of both education and work is a brilliant way for students to have the full embodiment of experience in Canada.

The PIE: The international education industry was “caught in the crossfire” of diplomatic tensions with Saudi Arabia last year, and there’s tension brewing with China – how can institutions deal with these type of events?

MM: The world is a very complicated place and there are always going to be tensions at times, because of trade or other bilateral matters. From a Canadian perspective, our goal is always to ensure that we can create as many long-lasting relationships that can withstand the ups and downs of things that take place on a geopolitical level.

We had a few blips in the past couple of years, and what we have been doing behind the scenes with Universities Canada is really to say “how can we find a positive path forward?”

Now if you look at the Saudi Arabia case, we had a very strong success in turning things around, not entirely but fairly significantly, employing good diplomatic discussions both inside and outside Canada.

The PIE: Let’s move onto the B word – what will Brexit mean for UK-Canada relationships on research and mobility?

MM: We will have to see what Brexit actually amounts to. There are so many things I could say about that but what I would say is we see that however Brexit unfolds, assuming the UK leaves the EU, we will have to look at the relationship we have with the UK from a very structural perspective and see what things will change based on that, and address those structural issues.

We don’t know what those are yet, because we don’t know what the nature of the transition will be. But beyond the structural, we have had a long and very positive relationship with the UK and its universities – that won’t change post-Brexit.

“We have had a long and very positive relationship with the UK, that won’t change post-Brexit”

It may change in terms of how we have to relate to each other because of the nature of changes to the UK in terms of their policies around international students, research partnerships or other matters, but I don’t foresee any foundational changes to our relationship.

In the discussions that we have had just this week with the research authority here in London, it’s all systems go, and we looked at the future, recognising that there can be some blips in terms of how Brexit forces us to sort of engage.

Paul Davidson: What a historic moment for us to be here [in London] to look at the evolving relationships: we have long and deep-standing relationships here and we want to see those continue and grow.

We really have a stake in both UK and Europe because of our historical connections and the historical relevance of the flow of people and ideas remains, so whatever the political arrangements are, we have to find ways to keep students moving, researchers moving and ideas moving.

The PIE: Let’s talk about Canada’s new international education strategy.

PD: Canada’s federal budget was released recently, we are very pleased to see an investment of $147m over five years for a new international education strategy. Our understanding is that there are three components to that: the largest component we expect will be for a new outbound student mobility program.

“We need to find a method to get Canadian students into these emerging parts of the world”

The second is around diversifying the sources of international students that come into Canada: at present, about 50% of all our international students come from just two countries. And then a third element is an investment into our immigration processing and procedures to make sure that our visa processing can be both secure and timely.

Right now the greatest interest in Canada is about the contours of this new outbound student mobility program. It’s something that a wide array of stakeholders have been working towards for over a decade.

The PIE: How should the funds be spent to ensure the new outbound strategy is successful?

Paul Davidson: There are a number of different models. We did offer some advice in the pre-budget period, and we want to make sure that such an initiative is open to university students and college students, and that it encourages students to go to non-traditional markets, such as Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Canadians that do study abroad tend to go to traditional destinations such as the UK, US and Australia. That is great, and there will be opportunities for more students to do that, but we need to find a method to get Canadian students into these emerging parts of the world. And the other dimension is widening participation. We want this outbound mobility program to be not just the preserve of the privileged.

“In some ways we are victims of our success”

The PIE: What other challenges does the sector have now after smashing the 450k student goal?

PD: The diversification challenge is real, in some ways we are victims of our success. We made a strategic effort to build connections with China and that’s grown phenomenally over 40 years, we made a decision about a decade ago to put an emphasis on India and that’s developed very nicely, so now we are in a very interesting spot to think about a handful of other countries or markets where there is a high demand for education, where there’s a value in higher education and where we may be able to make an offering.

And we recognise we are in competition with Australia, the UK, New Zealand, so we have to do some market research and build a program that involves not only universities and colleges but also business and civil society and our government, to help brand Canada more broadly.

MM: The challenge going forward is to continue to enable Canadian universities to remain high-quality, independent institutions, which allows them to recruit top-quality students and faculty, to conduct the kind of research that’s important for the world, and doing it in an internationalised context.

I think we are on a positive trajectory but when you take your eye off the ball, you can quickly lose ground. Keeping the focus on continuing to evolve our international programming is critically important, it would be easy to step back and say “wow we are in pretty good shape,” but now it’s the time to in a sense double down on our commitment to internationalisation.

The PIE: What else is on the horizon for Canadas’s HE internationalisation?

PD: Canada likes to see itself as a partner, not a poacher, this is really important as we think about an evolving higher education space. Canadian universities have to play a role in building institutional capacity in emerging economies, strengthening research capacity, finding new ways of collaborating, so that this really is a global enterprise and not just one of poaching.

The PIE: The country will vote in the federal elections this year, what are your hopes and fears for the next government?

 MM: Our hope is, whatever the outcome of the election, that the government that comes into power remains committed to creating a diverse Canadian landscape of higher education that meets the needs of domestic students right across the country, meets the needs of those that are underrepresented in our institutions like indigenous students, and beyond that recognises the importance of continuing to encourage inbound students from around the world to come into Canada.

“Looking inward is not the way the country will evolve”

And of course, also related to this very recent budget decision, that really recognises the importance of Canadians getting around the world and having those outbound experiences. Looking inward is not the way the country will evolve and I think universities have a lot to contribute to ensuring that in our case Canada looks outward to understand how best to meet the needs of Canadians.

PD:  When you look globally, the countries that have the most successful higher education and research systems are those where there’s a non-partisan consensus about the value of higher education and research. And so we work with all parties in the pre-election period on the enduring value of higher education and to put universities at the centre of the economic and social future of Canada.

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