While international education is big business—churning $6.5 billion or more into the Canadian economy annually, nipping at the heels of the aerospace sector—that’s not what’s motivating Amit Chakma.
The president of London, Ont.’s University of Western Ontario, and five other education and business leaders, were appointed to a panel last fall by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Trade Minister Ed Fast to guide the government on how it should craft an international education strategy. The government earmarked $10 million over two years in the 2011 budget to develop and put in place the strategy.
That panel received more than 150 online consultation submissions, and invited groups and individuals to a series of roundtables across the country, said Mr. Chakma. It held a day-long meeting in January in Toronto that brought together over 50 stakeholders to identify major themes.
Groups consulted include provincial governments (they control most aspects of education governance in Canada), schools from primary to post-secondary, student leaders, and business associations like the Canadian Council of Chief Executives.
The panel is set to travel to Shanghai, Beijing, and New Delhi in two weeks to see what needs to be done on the ground to promote Canadian education. The panel also still wants to talk to more students, and industrial associations that could give it a better sense of labour market issues.
Its aim is to wrap up its findings by June in a report to the ministers.
Mr. Chakma has a personal motivation in crafting the strategy: he’s lived it. He told the Globe and Mail in an interview published this month that he grew up in Bangladesh, studied chemical engineering in Algeria, and then moved to Vancouver to do a master’s degree at the University of British Columbia.
Besides his work at Western, he’s currently the chair of the board of the World University Service of Canada.
Fresh from China, where he was a member of the Canadian delegation accompanying the prime minister on an official visit, Mr. Chakma spoke to Embassy by phone on Feb. 13. The following interview has been edited for length and .
While you don’t yet have recommendations as your report isn’t finished, can you give a sense of the key points you’ve heard so far?
“The advice we got from the consultation process is that we have to look at the whole sector…from K to 12, to post-secondary. It is a massive sector.
“Second message we heard is that this is not just about bringing international students to Canada. Or this is not just about student exchange. This is about internationalizing our education system. So we get a broader view.
“And also, in terms of promoting Canada, this is what we have heard, that we believe that Canada as a country has a system that is of very high quality.
“I used the term ‘system’ deliberately. What we find is that many countries—I will not name them—have really, really top notch institutions, but also have really, really poorly-performing institutions. The strength of our country is that as long as we’re looking at traditional institutions—this will be provincially sanctioned colleges, universities, schools—the quality across the board is very good…
“So as a result, we believe that our stakeholders told us that we should try to promote Canada as a quality brand. What it also means is that we have to take steps to make sure that we deliver on that promise…
“The second element of it is social and economic benefit to Canada. So we have heard that internationalizing education, and specifically bringing international students benefits all parts of our country. And we cannot find a parallel to this sector. If you look at the auto sector, essentially it’s Ontario- and Quebec-centric, mostly Ontario-centric. If you look at energy, it’s west coast- and Newfoundland-centric.”
“So, as a result, we see many, many positive aspects of internationalization. This will help Canadians become more aware of our global position. So in smaller communities, whether it’s Lethbridge or Cape Breton, just bringing those international students does so much good to educate our own citizens, exposing our own citizens to that market.”
You were in China last week with the prime minister. One of the things to come out of it was a joint agreement to explore how to expand two-way academic exchange to reach about 100,000 students studying in each other’s countries within five years, and that the two sides also recognized “that there is a particular need to encourage more Canadian students to study in China.” How should Canada boost its flow of students there?
“We absolutely should send more students to China, and other countries. China is emerging as an important country…economically, culturally and every other angle. We have 1.4 million Canadians of Chinese heritage. So that gives us some interesting advantage/opportunities.
“Having said that, let me also put things in proper context. These are rough numbers: there are about 60,000 Chinese students who study here; about 6,000 Canadian students who are in China.
“The reason I say these are rough numbers, you have to find some ways of measuring who is a student, and who is not. Our 60,000 would include anyone who comes to Canada with a study permit longer than six months. Not all 60,000 are enrolled in our universities or colleges as full-time students…
“So when you look at that point of view, it’s a ratio of 10:1. Our Chinese friends told us that there is a trade deficit, meaning they are sending more students, we are sending few.
“My response to them is this: absolutely, we would like to send more, more than 6,000. But when you look at it on a per-capita basis: you have 1.3- to 1.4-billion Chinese, we have 35 million. Six thousand over 35 million is not a bad number. What I’m saying is that because of that proportion of the population of the base that we are dealing with, we will never be able to send as many students to China as China is sending to us.
“Part of the problem is a language problem. Most of the Chinese universities teach in Chinese, in Mandarin. As Mandarin becomes more of an international language, if you will, I’m pretty sure there will be more Canadian students who would like to go and study in Mandarin. But it will be a slow process.
“As Chinese universities also expand their course offerings in English, that will create another opportunity.
“The third opportunity—now I’m into dream land, we don’t quite have it yet—imagine a partnership between Canadian institutions and Chinese institutions, where we change professors. Chinese professors come and teach here. We go and teach there. All of a sudden you create more opportunities for our students to go there and learn in a Chinese environment.”
How important is international education economically to Canada, or how important should it be?
“Let me first tell you why I personally am devoting so much of my time on this cause. It has nothing to do with markets; that’s not the driver for me. And I can tell you that’s not the driver for any of my fellow panellists…
“As an educator, the reason that I believe we should do it is really to provide our students, the students I have at Western and other institutions in this country, a window to see the world…
“It so happens that [a comprehensive internationalization strategy] also benefits the country from an economic point of view…
“So think of it this way, number one, gross level at Canada: $6.5 billion worth of benefit, according to the last report we have. Today, if you looked at the latest numbers in 2012, I’m pretty sure it’s more than $6.5 billion; I’m pretty sure it would be $7 billion-plus.
“What does that mean? The aerospace sector is an important export sector for Canada. You know how much it’s worth? $9.2 billion. So we are pretty close to the aerospace sector…
“The CEO of Bombardier was with us [in the Canadian delegation to China]. I was joking with him, I said we believe that the education sector has the capacity to double that number from $6.5 billion, or $7 billion, to $14 billion over the next decade. So my friendly challenge to my friend, the CEO of Bombardier, was: Can you do that in the aerospace sector? Of course, nobody said no, but it’s not easy.
“So it’s not only that, but going back to my other comment, this is one of those sectors where economic benefit is spread out from coast to coast to coast…So we estimate that this $7 billion, or $6.5 billion if I stay with the published number, created 80,000 high-quality jobs in this country. So if you are going to double it, that’s 160,000 jobs. And as you know, high-quality jobs are what we need to support our economic base.”
Canada has recently slipped from the ranks of the top host countries for international students. Are there specific, concrete ways you think Canada can work its way back?
“I wouldn’t read too much into it. These are all relative things. What I do know from our work is that…when Australia and the UK are looking at who their competition is, they are considering Canada to be their biggest competitor…
“Timing is everything in this sort of thing. Now, there have been some tightening of student visa regulations in the UK. Australia had some bad news, bad publicity, with respect to various mishaps they had.
“So that creates opportunity for us. And if we seize that opportunity, we don’t necessarily have to be the largest country in terms of number of students. I think as long as we bring enough, send enough, to meet our academic aspirations, I will be quite satisfied…
“I would worry about diminishing, or not being able to promote that quality brand; that’s important.”