Are the Stars Aligned? Will Canada finally create an international education strategy?

In its 2011 budget, the Government of Canada announced an allocation of $10 million over a two year period for the development and launching of Canada’s first international education strategy.  To achieve this goal, it struck an Advisory Panel of six experts who produced an extremely comprehensive, strategic, and expansive report in August 2012.  The report, entitled International Education: A Key Driver of Canada’s Future Prosperity, provides recommendations organized under five core themes: targets for success, policy coordination and ensuring sustainable quality, promotion of education in Canada, investments and infrastructure and support. It clearly outlines the economic impact of international education for a prosperous Canada and urges Canada to seize the opportunity and act now.  Informed observers have a sense of déjà vu, since this sense of urgency and many of the specific recommendations can be traced through other reports released over the last two decades (see Trilokekar, 2007).

So, what are the likely chances that Canada will move forward in response to this latest report for a national international education strategy?

Common Themes

There are many similarities between this new report and past Canadian reports on international education and international cultural relations. The sense of urgency to take advantage of a “narrow window of opportunity” (Foreign Affairs, 2012, p.1) runs through most of the reports that have emerged over the last twenty years.  Another common theme is the conclusion that there is a need to “showcase” and brand Canadian education through an effective communications strategy.  Arguments for marketing Canadian higher education can be traced back to the early 1970’s with the rising importance of the Asia Pacific region as a strategic priority for Canada’s foreign relations policy (Trilokekar, 2007).  Through the 1980’s and 1990’s, observers noted the need to increase the number of foreign students, while at the same time, they identified a policy vacuum that prevented the development of  a national foreign student policy. The changing context of a competitive “global” environment and a growing “knowledge-based economy” was  reinforced in government reports in the 1990’s, such as a Department of Foreign Affairs document which stated, “Higher education and training is one of the fastest growing and competitive sectors in the international market place. Ensuring the quality of higher education systems and the appropriate and effective marketing of their services requires careful attention.” (DFA, 1994, p. 6).  This report was published following extensive consultations  and many of its recommendations are remarkably similar to those presented in the current report, namely, coordinating and strengthening the policy dialogue across different stakeholder groups, especially provincial governments and  higher education institutions,  consultation and exchange of information, facilitating Canadian student and faculty mobility, supporting international research through  strong partnerships, and supporting marketing efforts in select priority markets.  Most past reports have also reinforced the leadership role of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAIT) in coordinating an international education strategy, albeit always in cooperation with other federal departments, provincial ministries and other stakeholder groups.

Reviewing past reports reveals a number of consistent messages including the importance of international education, the need for policy coordination and cooperation, the necessity for adequate infrastructure and funding and the value of a multipronged and balanced approach to international education (for example a two way exchange of students).

Important Differences

So, what makes this report different?

First, and perhaps most importantly, the latest policy initiative has come from the center of government, i.e. the Minister of Finance, in partnership with the Minister of Trade. This is extremely important given the power the Minister of Finance has on setting policy directions and in allocating funds and influencing change.  In recognition of the importance of a high level policy and planning process, the report very appropriately identifies the Prime Minister as a unifying champion for international education and argues that international education should be part of all official government policies and plans. 

Other notable differences in this report include: reasonable and practical targets for student mobility; the proposal of a cost-sharing model for scholarships (an approach particularly salient given past Government of Canada funding approaches and the fiscal climate of current times); the focus on scholarships at both the graduate and undergraduate levels; the recommendation to work within the existing infrastructure of  Government embassies/consulates; the need to ensure that embassy staff have a solid understanding of Canada’s educational system; the recognition of Canada’s achievements to date; and the strong emphasis on quality, including reinforcing the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada’s (CMEC) role in developing and maintaining quality assurance mechanisms. 

Another very important difference is that the report identifies international education as a “pipeline to the Canadian labour market’ (p. 12). This is an extremely significant development in a country like Canada where international education has often been perceived as a “foreign” rather than a domestic issue. By focusing on the domestic rational for international student recruitment, including the relationship to Canada’s need for immigration to address pressing labour market needs, the report brings international education closer to home (Trilokekar, 2007). 

Moving Forward?

Are these differences sufficient for the report to turn into national policy and achieve its objectives? In a country where the national government has primary responsibility for foreign affairs and the provinces regulate education, policy coordination is a key issue in any discussion of international education.  An entire chapter of the report is dedicated to policy coordination, including recommending the development of a proposed Council on International Education and Research (CIER).  However, the proposed CIER is similar, in both structure and membership, to a number of existing bodies, including separate committees currently operated by DFAIT, Citizenship & Immigration Canada and the Council of Ministers of Education. The problem does not seem to lie solely in mechanisms for coordination, but rather the will to coordinate given the various jurisdictional issues, regional and sectoral differences, and the increasing competition within this highly decentralized policy arena. 

The increasing economic importance of international education has clearly led to a stronger alignment of interests across different government policy agendas and stakeholder groups. However a national policy requires a ‘pan-Canadian’ approach to align provincial interests within a federal framework and the acceptance of federal government leadership in an area of provincial responsibility.  Given the alignment of important national and provincial policy initiatives, this seems to be an opportune time for the federal government to work in partnership with the provinces. What remains to be seen is whether the federal government will rise to the challenge and make this a high policy priority for the Prime Minister’s Office, provide the required funding and infrastructure, and relinquish some amount of fiscal control to the provinces to foster their commitment to a coordinated national approach.

References

Department of Foreign Affairs (1994).The International Dimensions of Higher Education in Canada Collaborative Policy Framework, Draft Discussion Paper, May 1994, viii.

Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (2012). International education: A keydriver of Canada’s future prosperity (Final Report). Advisory Panel on Canada’s International Education Strategy. Retrieved on August 25, 2012 from website: http://www.international.gc.ca/education/report-rapport/strategy-strategie/index.aspx?view=d

Trilokekar, Roopa. (2007). Federalism, Foreign Policy and the Internationalization ofHigher Education: A Case Study of the Department of Foreign Affairs (FAC), Canada.Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Toronto.