Vancouver Sun Op-Ed – Roll of the red carpet for foreign students


Declining fertility coupled with longer retirements presents us with a demographic challenge. We face a predicted national shortage of over one million qualified workers by 2025. Our ability to address this looming crisis will define our society for decades to come.

How will we deal with this? While ramping up domestic training is crucial, immigration must play a central role. Already, 75 per cent of Canada’s workforce growth is attributable to immigration, growing to 100 per cent in the next decade. As Immigration Minister Jason Kenney noted: “Canada’s post-recession economy demands a high level of economic immigration to keep our economy strong.”

Other nations face similar challenges, so we must be ever more strategic in meeting our workforce needs. Skilled immigrants face well-characterized challenges to success. International students, on the other hand, largely surmount these challenges: During their studies, they earn Canadian credentials, gain proficiency in an official language, and establish professional and personal networks in Canada. With roughly 50 per cent of international students planning to stay and work in Canada, ramping up international student recruitment is an effective strategy for economic immigration. And the 50 per cent who plan to leave? They often land in leading positions with business or government in their home countries, increasing Canada’s economic and diplomatic connections.

There are additional immediate compelling arguments in favour of international education. Today 3.7 million post-secondary students study internationally, growing to an expected seven million by 2025. Canada hosted more than 218,000 international students at all levels last year. They injected $6.5 billion into the Canadian economy, more than exports of either coniferous lumber or coal. Over $300 million annually in government revenue and 83,000 Canadian jobs are directly attributable to international education, which is now Canada’s No. 1 export to China, No. 2 export to South Korea and No. 4 to India.

Canada has demonstrated significant growth in international education, doubling the number of students during the last decade, yet we trail the major players – the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Australia. But Canada has distinct advantages: We boast a deserved reputation for being open and safe; are home to large immigrant communities; our universities rank among the world’s best; and we have well-established economic and cultural links to Asia-Pacific countries, a rapidly growing source of international students.

It is time for a national, coordinated strategy for international student recruitment.

British Columbia provides a model for Canadian success. With 13 per cent of Canada’s population, it attracts 28 per cent of Canada’s international students, with recruitment growing at a rate four times the national average. International education is a top-five export sector, generating $1.8 billion annually in economic activity and supporting 21,000 full-time jobs. It is the single biggest trade sector with India, Saudi Arabia and Mexico, and in the top three with Brazil, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and China. Premier Christy Clark should build on this success during her upcoming trip to India and China.

The real challenge, however, is to place Canada foremost in the minds of students, their professors and their families. Traditional recruitment strategies, such as education fairs, do a good job of targeting a broad base of students. We also need to reach out to the exceptional students who are the basis for the knowledge workforce. Vanier and Banting scholarships, while limited in number, can be showcased to students in target countries. Proactive recruitment and marketing programs like Mitacs Globalink, which target the best international students for summer research internships at Canadian universities, are showing excellent outcomes both for recruitment and for raising our profile abroad.

We must support students’ efforts to establish themselves, helping them transition into successful Canadian economic immigrants.

A national strategy on international education will help solve the looming labour shortage while producing immediate economic advantages. B.C. is in a strong position to take leadership. The short-term and long-term benefits to the economy and our ability to solve our demographic challenges make it in our best interest to get it right.

Dr. Arvind Gupta is CEO and scientific director of Mitacs, a national research network focused on connecting university-based math researchers with companies to solve real-world challenges. He is also a professor of computer science at UBC.