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Paul Davidson, Universities Canada

Name: Paul Davidson

Occupation: President, Universities Canada

Location: Canada


Photo: The PIE News

One GSO program is partnering Indigenous students in Canada with Indigenous students in Mexico

Paul Davidson, president and CEO of Universities Canada, knows from experience the effort involved in organising a study abroad experience.

“[I am] somebody who did a study abroad experience in 1985 in Zimbabwe that I negotiated by myself. The world has changed. I’d just like to see more students have these opportunities,” he tells The PIE.

The $95 million Global Skills Opportunity outbound program was launched in November 2021, and joins other schemes such as the Queen Elizabeth Scholars Program, created around the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee 10 years ago.

“Barriers to international experiences remain… but universities are trying to knock those away. Schemes like GSO give a framework for students to have confidence that they’re going to have a good experience. Universities have confidence that the experience they have will be creditable as well as credible.

“Canada actually does not send many students abroad”

“This has been a long-standing challenge for Canada, and it was a very broad effort to secure this federal commitment,” Davidson explains, taking collaboration between colleges, universities and stakeholders such as CBIE, CICan and Universities Canada.

“You know, Canada actually does not send many students abroad. Internationally, in fact, it’s less per capita than the US, the UK, and Australia. So part of this initiative is to increase that number.”

Part of the strategic thinking is how to partner with “new and emerging countries, unconventional destinations”, he continues.

“To the extent that we do send students abroad, they go to traditional countries – the UK, Australia, France… Ironically, it was a bit of a pandemic gift of the next 18 months to think about how to attract different kinds of students and where to partner geographically.”

The high profile blue chip private sector advisory group includes CEO of Clearwater Seafoods Ian D. Smith, CEO of Canada’s Digital Technology Supercluster Sue Paish and former chief human resources officer and a former Royal Bank of Canada member Zabeen Hirji, among others.

Also on the advisory board of the GSO are Indigenous student Seren Friskie and president and CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, Tabatha Bull – both vital advisors on a key aim of the program.

“We want every student to have the opportunity,” Davidson says.

“Canada is engaged in a major process of truth and reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous population. And so finding mechanisms for Indigenous students who are of much reduced financial means and other barriers to have a study abroad experience is really [important].”

One funded program is partnering Indigenous  students in Canada with Indigenous students in Mexico.

“[That is] really asking questions about nationality. Which borders are they crossing? Whose borders are they? Because the first nations had borders longer, had relationships long before we arrived.”

The program also partners with the Rick Hanson Foundation named after the Canadian Paralympian to promote mobility to students with physical disabilities.

“It’s like, how do we reduce all the physical barriers for students to study abroad?”

The five-year GSO program is really just a pilot at present, Davidson indicates. “We want this to be a permanent feature of the Canadian higher education landscape, so we’re already talking with government about how to extend it.”

Davidson also expands on inbound mobility to Canada, with the current framing focusing on market recovery and diversification.

“China and India have been 50% of our international students in the last decade. That’s been very good for Canada and very good for China and for India. But on the recovery side, it’s how do we get the system moving again from key markets like France, like India? The recovery piece is coming along well.”

Additionally, Canada’s 2019 international education strategy – which Universities Canada fed into – laid out a list of priority countries, but as he mentions, the pandemic has given an opportunity to reconsider future partnerships.

“We’ve taken that list of priority countries, cut it in half and said we’re going to double down on these markets,” Davidson explains.

“We think the next phase of internationalisation is as much about diversification as it is about growth”

Vietnam and the Philippines are at the top of the list in Asia, Colombia in Latin America, Morocco and Senegal in Francophone Africa along with Ghana and Kenya.

“We think the next phase of internationalisation is as much about diversification as it is about growth. Many of our institutions are at 25% international students,” he continues.

The organisation that acts as the voice of Canadian universities is “very keen on the Canada brand being a high quality integrity, a good experience for students”.

“Doing internationalisation poorly damages Canada as much as doing it well will benefit Canada,” he says.

Universities Canada is “mindful that there are a broad array of actors in the Canadian marketplace”, and is “really sensitive to issues of high quality and integrity and making sure the experience is good”.

“We work again with CICan on maintaining that. You know, half the time, we’re pushing our immigration officials to speed up the visa processing, but at the same time, we’re saying, ‘make sure you do your due diligence’,” he says.

Having the C$10,000 Guaranteed Investment Certificate mechanism as part of Student Direct Stream is one way to making “sure that international students have got the means and that they’ve got the other kinds of support to make sure it’s a successful experience”.

Along with outbound and inbound mobility, international research and collaboration continues to sought at scale.

“Canada over the last 20 years has made huge strides in its research capacity – successive governments of all parties have invested in our research endeavour and our research is world leading,” the Universities Canada president notes.

But after the pandemic, Canadian institutions are searching for new international partnerships.

“Horizon Europe is very much of interest to Canada right now. Our prime minister has committed to being a member of Horizon Europe.”

A renewed Canada-US relationship as mentioned by PM Trudeau and president Biden in the past year could also offer potential for future research collaboration.

“We’re really excited about the potential for international research collaboration and then linking it back to the attraction of international students and sending Canadian students abroad.

“The research is often the most interesting that’s happening in a university, and that generates the kind of collaboration that leads to long-term international relationships. We see the research agenda as being really important.”

“We see the research agenda as being really important”

And preparing students, both domestic and international, for the future work place is another key priority.

While GSO includes work-integrated and civil society placements internationally, Canada looks to international graduates for employees to fill skills and jobs shortages.

“We are a pro-immigration country and it’s a non-partisan issue which is really important, and we’ve got to preserve that,” Davidson notes.

“In terms of policy development, Canada was among the first to provide a premium or a bonus to students that wish to stay in Canada, beyond their graduation for a period of time. You know, the UK is mimicking that now [with the graduate route]. We’re going to have to keep competitive in that regard.”

Universities, Davidson says, and the college sector is looking at upskilling, reskilling, short course credentialing, stackable credits.

“We’re constantly battling the perception that universities are slow to adapt or adopt, when you look at universities where they’re academics […] say every course is going to be snackable. We’re trying to do a better job of meeting the labour needs.”

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