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It is not too late to shift gears to a more visionary International Education Strategy for Canada 

Global Affairs Canada (GAC) is currently leading the development of Canada’s third International Education Strategy (IES) to follow the current strategy that expires on March 31 next year.

The diversification focus should shift away from recruiting students based on labour market priorities to attracting the most competitive students and scholars through both funded and self-funded models. Photo: pexels

"In lieu of Canada’s strength and value proposition, we propose four areas to guide our strategic objectives"

Undoubtedly, international education is a challenging policy arena in Canada, which makes strategy development for one federal department a monumental task.

As a policy area, it has evolved to incorporate a wide range of both policy sectors and policy actors on the federal level: GAC; Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC); Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC); and Research and Innovation.

GAC’s task is further complicated as the responsibility of education policy lies exclusively with the provinces. There are also diverse institutional, regional, municipal and community policy actors, each with their own goals and needs.

Creating consensus among all those diverse actors is difficult.

GAC has shown leadership and success in areas such as the most recent successful outbound mobility Global Skills Opportunity program, in collaboration with ESDC, and the recruitment and retention-focused International Student Program, in collaboration with IRCC.

While we celebrate those successes, we argue that it is time to go beyond this piecemeal approach to adopting a more holistic comprehensive approach to international education (IE).

Challenges with the current approach

The approach to the third iteration of IES is based on four proposed pillars (digital marketing, scholarships, diversification and education agents), four thematic papers (digitalisation of international education, increasing participation of Indigenous students, sustainability and climate change and alumni) and five sectoral papers (universities, colleges and institutes, elementary and secondary schools, language education, and French language schools outside of Quebec).

While there is value in this approach, in our opinion, these are micro-level implementation strategies.

Missing from the consultations (and yet to see if this is also missing from the Strategy) is a discussion of how/what Canada views as the value, role and purpose of IE in context of our international relations, the complex global geopolitical and economic environment and of course Canada’s interests and values that have built its global reputation.

This discussion lays the premise of an effective and visionary strategy which would serve as a blueprint outlining Canada’s differentiated IE value proposition, areas of focus, and therefore claiming Canada’s leadership in the IE arena.

With GAC’s mandate to “define, shape and advance Canada’s interests and values in a complex global environment”, such an approach is well within the department’s reach.

Wider participation in the strategy will enable more actors can better align themselves in multiple ways within broader goals of the plan.

While we do not argue against the focus on international student recruitment and their retention as Canada’s future immigrants as in previous iterations of the strategy, we propose is that this be the secondary not primary foci and an outcome not a goal of the strategy.

If we continue with the focus on recruitment and immigration, we should re-label the strategy to reflect this singular policy interest.

We should prioritise enriching learning and knowledge creation and exchange; advancing innovation and international research collaborations and promoting brain circulation and exchange of local/global know-how; fostering mutual understanding, respect, tolerance, social change; and enhancing diplomatic relations and world peace.

It should also focus on the value of our education globally, allowing students to access local and global labor markets and networks.

A proposed approach to International Education Strategy development

In lieu of Canada’s strength and value proposition, we propose four areas to guide our strategic objectives.

International education should align better with Canada’s Research and Innovation Agendas

GAC does not go far enough in linking UN SDGs, climate change and international education with the incredible transnational and transformational work done by many Canadian higher education institutions.

There is a need to further strengthen the reputation of and build opportunities for Canadian institutions as global innovation hubs and research trailblazers.

The current siloed approach where the Ministry of Innovation, Science, and Industry and the National Research Councils has the research mandate, is problematic.

More competitive graduate scholarship and international and domestic mobility funding models is one way to create excellence in Canada. Looking for inspiration abroad is another.

“GAC needs to do much more given the importance the Government of Canada places on Truth and Reconciliation”

Canada should take note of Horizon Europe which invests in addressing complex global problems through funding national and international research collaborations and proactively facilitating global talent recruitment/circulation to European universities and research centres.

Germany also engages with internationalisation as a strategy that aims to solve global challenges, through funded bilateral and multilateral international science and research collaborations.

More purposeful inclusion of Indigenous perspectives

We are delighted to see the inclusion of Indigenous Participation as one of the four thematic papers, but GAC needs to do much more given the importance the Government of Canada places on Truth and Reconciliation.

GAC must engage with indigenous communities as well as indigenous students, scholars, practitioners, and policy makers to inform and educate how Indigenisation can inform IE policy approaches.

Our vision for reconciliation cannot be simply limited to a focus on Indigenous inclusion in IE activities.

We have to be cognisant that our IES approach does not directly or indirectly be harmful to and negate Canada’s commitment to TRC.

Models like those of New Zealand’s that have integrated indigenous values and wellbeing and safety perspectives – such as the Māori perspectives, values and language  and redefining relationships and responsibilities through its Code of Practice 2021 – can be adapted.

Quality, equity and inclusion

Our focus should be shifted away from recruiting (mostly self-funded) international students based on market and labour market priorities to attracting the most competitive graduate and undergraduate students and scholars, through both scholarships and academic mobility funding models and self-funded models.

This will create a more coherent approach to GAC’s suite of scholarships (and other federal scholarship programs), strengthen alumni networks, attract talent and thereby raise Canada’s recognition as a top study destination internationally and ultimately diversify student body (all GAC priorities).

Research is increasingly suggesting international students are not experiencing the safe, tolerant and quality life experience in Canada that they had assumed or anticipated.

“Covid-19 exposed glaring injustices and inequities that hurt international students”

Some of these challenges are addressed in GAC papers (e.g., illegal recruiters), but they all negatively impact the integrity, quality, and reputation of our system.

Countries like Australia went down similar policy trajectories; we are heeding these signals, but with a myopic vision.

We support the proposal for a code of conduct, but more is needed.

Covid-19 exposed glaring injustices and inequities that hurt international students. Both GAC and other federal departments must invest in tracking and assessing measures that capture the distinctive and heterogeneous identities of international students and the nature of their complex, multifaceted and multilayered experiences.

This means using an EDI lens to capture the full spectrum of international student journeys and help identify cracks within our system (between the educational sectors which GAC largely treats independently) and gaps in policies and supports (between academic institutions, employment, and immigration).

What should we actually measure?

The current GAC papers propose to track and assess IES policy outcomes in terms of economic value of hosting international students and retaining them as workers to the Canadian economy.

For example, they seek to assess GAC’s success in advertising Canada (under the EduCanada brand) to prospective international students, in priority markets and in focused study areas, and in context of how recruitment corresponds to labour market gaps and Government of Canada priorities (we assume connected to the economy and the labour market).

We urge GAC to broaden its scope to include global research collaborations, reputation of Canada’s educational programs globally, engagement with diverse global communities, impact on global communities, along with capturing data on international students.

GAC is rightly concerned with increased vulnerability to Canada from international education. Geopolitical conflicts, pandemic, and economic challenges exemplify this concern; however, equally important is the contribution of our own policy approach.

This post pandemic era, affords us an excellent opportunity to recognise our challenges but carve a new way forward by developing a strategy visionary in approach, better aligned with Canada’s value proposition. We welcome engagement in such a policy challenge.

About the authors: Amira El Masri has worked in a range of senior international education strategy-oriented roles nationally and internationally. Currently, she is the director of the Office of International Affairs at McMaster University. She is an active researcher on international education policymaking, international student experiences, and internationalizing teacher education.

Roopa Desai Trilokekar is an Associate Professor, Faculty of Education, York University. Her research interests include: the history of internationalization of higher education as policy in Canada, International Students as ideal immigrants’ as a global policy discourse and; international education as a soft power/public diplomacy tool in context of shifting/new geopolitics.

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