Chronicle-Herald: Op-Ed by Colin Dodds – Canada can become international education powerhouse

International students account for one out of every 10 undergraduates studying at Canadian universities. Nova Scotia, often referred to as Canada’s education capital, has achieved significant success in attracting international and out-of-province students.

My own institution, Saint Mary’s University, has one of highest proportions of international students in the country. Nearly 30 per cent of our 6,400 full-time students are from abroad, creating a globalized campus with immense benefits for all students, faculty and the broader community.

Across the country, the educational experience of Canadian undergraduates is enriched by the presence of students from around the world. They bring new perspectives, cultures and languages to our campuses and communities. Together with study-abroad opportunities, this international exposure provides students the global awareness that many employers demand as they face the increasingly global competitive trade and investment landscape.

International students have an equally important impact off-campus. According to a 2012 federal government report, they generate approximately $8 billion in spending across Canada. To put it in perspective, that’s more than the value of our exports in wheat or softwood lumber.

In Atlantic Canada, their total economic impact was estimated at about $565 million in 2009-2010. In Halifax, international students mean job creation and economic growth. It is important to note that the international student sector is expanding around the world — one of the few sectors that has seen growth during the recession.

Many of our international students join local business organizations and attend events organized by the Greater Halifax Partnership, the Chamber of Commerce and Nova Scotia Business Inc. Some become Canadian citizens after graduation. In fact, a number of our international graduates now work in Canada’s information technology, banking and finance, media and education sectors. Others have started their own businesses in these sectors, generating much-needed new economic activity in our region.

More would love to stay in Nova Scotia, including in the more rural parts of the province. So we need more internships and co-op opportunities, particularly with the small and medium-sized businesses, for our students to gain the experience many employers require. Additionally, some international students have access to external capital sources that could lead to more opportunities for succession as the baby boomer entrepreneurs seek to sell their businesses. The final report of the Nova Scotia Commission on Building Our New Economy may have more to say on these important issues.

Last year, I was a member of the federal government’s Advisory Panel on Canada’s International Education Strategy and it proposed a vision for Canada “to become the 21st century leader in international education,” but not by compromising quality.

It made 14 recommendations on how to develop and implement this. Among our recommendations, we called for increased study-abroad opportunities for Canadian students and a doubling of international students by 2022 in what is now a very competitive recruitment marketplace. For example, more than 20 per cent of students in Australia are international, and countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and China are staking their claims to be centres of international education to compete with the traditional providers, such as the U.S. and U.K.

As a member of the panel, I engaged in cross-country consultations and was struck by how each region of Canada benefits from international students in its own way. In Atlantic Canada, the reality of our aging population and outmigration has brought us to a demographic precipice. To ensure the continued economic and social vitality of our region, the solution lies, in my opinion, in part with the contribution that international students make to our region and in our capacity to attract these students and help them achieve their potential.

Progress has been made — I applaud Budget 2013’s announcement of $13 million over two years to the Mitacs Globalink program. The government program, which attracts highly promising students from around the world to Canadian universities for short-term research placements, will now allow Canadian students to take advantage of training opportunities in key countries abroad. The $42 million earmarked for temporary resident visas, which may have an impact on international students, and the $10 million allotted to marketing the Canada brand internationally are other steps in the right direction.

No one sector — universities, government or business — can on its own reach Canada’s potential in attracting top international students and helping them achieve their goals, including staying in Canada. But working together, we can make it happen. 

The more opportunities we create for our talented graduates, the more we are able to retain international students who have so much to offer to our region and to our country. In addition to those who stay and contribute to our economy domestically, many international students return to their home countries and act as ambassadors for Canada, helping to build important linkages in trade, investment, diplomacy and education.

Higher education is now the global currency and it’s very encouraging that students from around the world are increasingly choosing to study in Canada. It’s time to do more — as a community, a region and a country — to leverage these assets to build prosperity and strengthen our educational brand around the world.

Colin Dodds is president of Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.