Victoria Times Colonist: University of Victoria benefits from overseas students program

For Mexican student Paulina Ramirez, summer at the University of Victoria offered many surprises: nearby woodland walks, trips to the beach and clean air by the lungful.

These sorts of natural experiences were all very different from 25-year-old Ramirez’s life in Mexico City.

But UVic research methods were also a huge revelation for the fourth-year student in social psychology, who returns to the National Autonomous University of Mexico next month.

While conducting research into how cultural identity and awareness develops in aboriginal youth, Ramirez was pleasantly surprised to find members of the B.C. First Nations communities actively participating in the work.

“Here [UVic researchers] really seem to focus on doing research with the community members, in giving them a say in what the research will be,” she said. “In Mexico, I think, it is more like research on indigenous communities.”

Ramirez is one of 473 students from around the world completing summer research internships at 37 Canadian campuses through the Mitacs Globalink program. This year’s students come from India, China, Brazil, Mexico, Vietnam, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

The program is designed to boost the profile of Canadian universities among scholars worldwide while they are still undergraduates. Since it began in 2009, Mitacs Globalink has brought 900 students to Canada for summer internships.

Mitacs is a not-for-profit group supported by Canadian universities as well as the federal and provincial governments. It is an effort to reverse a trend, noted about five years ago, that few of the world’s best graduates seek out Canadian universities for post-graduate work.

“Speaking with a lot of our university partners, they felt we weren’t getting the quality of graduate students they expected,” said Rob Annan, Mitacs’ interim chief executive officer.

“Our universities are very strong, but when it came to international graduate students we weren’t really attracting the best and the brightest,” Annan said.

Mitacs did some investigation and learned that few international students even gave any thought to Canadian universities when embarking on their postgraduate studies.

“They think of the U.S., the U.K. or Europe,” he said.

“Apart from a few who might think of the [University of Toronto] the rest of our universities just don’t register, despite how good they are.”

It can be tough for Canadian universities, Annan said.

Consider the Indian Institutes of Technology, now among the best schools in the world, attracting more than 100,000 applications per year from inside their own country and accepting fewer than two per cent. For those who do not get into IIT, Ivy League schools, such as Harvard and Yale, are there offering full scholarships to the cream of that crop.

“It’s hard when you are the University of Victoria or the university not only to compete against Stanford but to compete against Stanford when it has money on the table,” Annan said.

Instead of stepping into that kind of competition, Mitacs is trying to make a mark for Canadian universities by a different route.

Rather than competing for the best graduate students, it hopes to attract undergraduates to Canadian campuses.

Beginning in 2009 in India, Mitacs Globalink began a program of offering summer internships to undergraduate students, hoping to plant the seeds of awareness about academic and research opportunities in Canadian schools.

That way, students are more likely to consider Canadian schools as a possibility. They will also describe them to friends and instructors. Or perhaps, when they have gained credentials from the world’s best universities, they will consider teaching in Canada.

“There is a lot of value in making sure we are part of the global conversation,” Annan said.

Meanwhile, beginning this year, about 100 Canadian students are abroad for summer internships. Again, it’s another Mitacs effort to reverse a disappointing trend.

“Canadian students traditionally have not sought out experience abroad, not at the same rates as their counterparts in other countries,” Annan said.

“We are trying to effect a bit of a culture change.”


Byline: Richard Watts