Canada is looking to capitalize on its growing appeal as a destination for international students, as officials discuss ways to help academic visitors study, work, and possibly become permanent residents.
At the annual conference here of the Canadian Bureau for International Education, with attendees from more than 40 countries, participants say Canada is in a strong position to raise its global profile after years of disjointed efforts to attract overseas students.
"People have been keeping an eye for years on what Australia is doing, but now it's Canada," says Pamela Barrett, North American director of client services for International Graduate Insight Group, or i-graduate, a British company that surveys international students to find out where they want to study and why. When talking to clients, which include universities and other educational providers from 24 countries, she says the message she hears is, "the Canadians are coming." She adds, "There's a real sense Canada is getting its act together."
Despite the momentum—Canada experienced double-digit growth in international students during the last three years—higher-education officials warn that the opportunity could be squandered without new efforts to smooth pathways for students to move between education institutions, to improve support services for those who remain in Canada after graduation, and to reduce student-visa fraud.
"Canada has to seize this moment," the president of the University of Western Ontario, Amit Chakma, told attendees. Mr. Chakma leads a panel assembled by the federal government to provide advice on a forthcoming international-education strategy.
The panel, set up in October, is scheduled to report by February on what an overarching strategy for the higher-education sector should look like, what markets Canada should focus on abroad, and what potential financial commitments by governments and institutions are needed to support the policy.
Several motives are behind the Canadian efforts to become a more attractive destination. International students are a source of revenue for increasingly cash-strapped institutions, which may charge three to four times the rate of domestic students. Students who decide to stay after graduation and become permanent residents are a potential source of skilled workers to replace the country's graying labor force. Not least, college and university administrators see foreign students as an essential ingredient in preparing all students for a globalized economy and promoting cultural exchanges.
"We have a small window of opportunity right now," says Gonzalo Peralta, executive director of Languages Canada, one of five national education organizations that last year joined forces to work together on overseas marketing. "We have a certain momentum going, so it is time to capitalize on that."
A forthcoming report commissioned by the consortium identifies gaps in systemwide data, such as the number of students and a record of their movement between institutions, a shortage of credit-transfer agreements among institutions, and a lack of a mechanism to examine educational quality nationwide.
Problems with visas were also discussed at the conference. Federal-immigration officials suggested that they will take steps to ameliorate concerns about fraudulent use of student visas in the coming months.
"This will be the next significant change in the student-permit program," predicted Pauline l'Ecuyer, associate director of international-student services at McGill University and chair of the Canadian Bureau for International Education's immigration committee. For example, federal-immigration authorities do not check to see if foreign students who arrive on study permits actually go to class, and there is no obligation on education institutions to report on them.
Such changes come as this fall, Canadian universities and colleges announced record-breaking increases in enrollment of foreign students. The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada reported an 11-percent jump in foreign-student enrollments at universities, while community colleges, polytechnical institutes, and other educational institutions said student numbers from India took off after a pilot-immigration program to streamline the processing of visas.
Before the program, only 1,500 Indian students came to Canadian community colleges during 2007-8. In 2010-11, more than 9,000 students arrived from India, with the total expected to rise to more than 12,000 this academic year.
A Boon for Business
Several speakers noted that Canada is now the third-most-popular country to study business, after the United States and Britain, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council.
That interest in business studies is also apparent in a recent survey of Indian high-school students by Academica Group, a Canadian educational-consulting company, which shows that business, communication, medicine, and information technology are among the most-popular areas of possible study.
Many of the students in the survey said they researched foreign institutions well before their senior year of high school, using Web sites to identify what institutions can offer to prepare them for high-quality jobs and possibly further study at top graduate and professional schools.
The survey also showed that students do not view international fairs as sources of information on universities and colleges.
"It's the same way as buying a boat, and people ask, 'Did you go to the boat show?'" the chief executive of Academica, Rod Skinkle, told attendees. He said guidance counselors remain fairly influential with students, far more than agents, as sources of information about educational programs, according to the survey. However, the students did say agents are more important than counselors when it comes to dealing with applications for visas.
The outgoing president of the Canadian Bureau for International Education, Vianne Timmons, said she has never seen such levels of energy and enthusiasm about the country's prospects as a global player. But like other education officials, Ms. Timmons, who is also president of the University of Regina, warned that key decisions are still needed to realize the potential for significant growth.
"We are at a critical juncture," she said. "We have an opportunity now with the investment nationally to really push forward with Canada as the destination of choice for foreign students and to encourage our domestic students to study abroad."
"It's ours to lose," she added.