Guelph Mercury – We need to do more to attract top foreign students

Just prior to the International Indian Film Academy awards being held in Toronto last summer, Indo-Canadian journalist and reporter Faiz Jamil prepared an essay for CBC online focusing on the awareness that contemporary Indians have of Canada — even with us hosting the film awards.

Jamil sums it up: “We simply don’t register.”

“Not even the fact that the (International Indian Film Academy) awards are being handed out in Toronto — the first time the huge ceremony has been in North America — seems to be generating much curiosity about Canada, either in the media or the public’s mind. That these awards are often called the ‘Bollywood Oscars’ pretty much gives away which western country has most of India’s attention. This tends to be followed by the old colonial master, Britain, and then Australia, where many smart young Indians go if they are looking for an affordable western education,” he writes.

Canada, at least in the minds of India’s best, brightest and most creative, tends to be an afterthought. “The Lokhandwala area of Mumbai is home to many artists, producers and other workers in India’s film industry. Mention Canada here and you’ll get responses ranging from ‘beautiful country’ to ‘very friendly people,’ ” writes Jamil.

Beautiful and friendly is a good start, but clearly Canada is not keeping pace in attracting the best and brightest minds from around the world — including millions of young people in India — as the place in which they want to study, learn or set up a business.

Arvind Gupta is the CEO and scientific director of MITACS Inc., a national research network that builds connections between industry and Canadian universities. In an interview with the Globe and Mail in 2010, Gupta describes how Canadian schools are not in the sights of the best students in India. According to him, India’s top students with the highest grade point averages head to Stanford or Princeton. Those would-be students with a nine grade point average or better, out of 10.

Australia has been more aggressive in its recruitment efforts in recent years, which has put schools in that country in the second tier of preferred study destinations. This has been matched by recruiting programs in Britain, France and Germany.

Finally, in a third-tier ranking is Canada, attracting those with grade point averages roughly 7.5 to 8 — basically, those with grades too poor to get into the better schools in the U.S., Australia or Europe. “These kids are not knocking on our door,” says Gupta, who is also a computer science professor at the University of British Columbia. “They’ve got Princeton and Stanford going to recruit them. They’ve got options. The whole world is coming after talent.”

It’s not as though Canada has been idly standing by watching this happen, though. There have been some pretty serious efforts on the part of governments to reverse this trend and start attracting some international brain talent to this county. For example, 19 Canada Excellence Research Chairs, each worth $10 million over seven years, were created by the federal government to boost academic excellence and attract star international researchers. There have also been the 70 Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships, each worth $70,000 a year for two years, also put in place by Ottawa. The government of Ontario has instituted four-year, $45,000-a-year scholarships for foreign PhD researchers, and the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario has set up five research chairs in theoretical physics.

On the international stage, we need to raise our profile and not be so timid about our size. In a small and shrinking global economy, exposure is vital. We are in a fierce competition not only for marketing our cars, lumber and oil, but also for scarce international capital. We compete for international students and artists looking for universities. We compete for global tourists seeking modern, cosmopolitan cities with great art and culture. We compete for business people looking for great market opportunities.

Are global capital managers, students, artists, tourists, and entrepreneurs thinking about Canada? Will the best and brightest in the world beat a path to our door to fulfil their economic dreams? Can young Canadians find enough reasons to return to their home country while in pursuit of art, design, technology, and education?

They won’t be if Canada continues to be so invisible on the global stage.

Troy Media Business columnist Todd Hirsch is senior economist with ATB Financial. This is an excerpt from the recently-launched book The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline.

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Section: Editorial