One of the things that marks Canada out among major countries with international education ambitions is the fact that we do very little in terms of establishing campuses abroad. There’s a reason for that: basically, our institutions are so well-funded that they mostly don’t seem to see the need for such a high-risk activity. And they are indeed risky: Waterloo tried to set up a branch campus focussed on math and engineering in Dubai, and it crashed only a couple of years later.
Part of the problem with the Waterloo experiment is that it misjudged both its own strengths and the market. It seems to have thought that its own reputation as a math/engineering school would act as a lure, thus giving them an edge in a market that was dying for high-tech programs. This was wrong on two counts: Waterloo’s reputation in math and engineering isn’t as strong in the Middle East as it is over here, and the Emirates tend not to produce math nerds and engineers so much as import them (and on the off chance locals want to learn this stuff, they tend to go overseas to the parent institution rather than rely on local provision).
Now, this isn’t to denigrate Waterloo at all – they showed gumption in trying to set something up abroad, and there’s no shame in failure. But, respectfully, this particular effort failed because it didn’t play to Waterloo’s actual core strength, which is co-op. If Waterloo ever tried to create a foreign campus based on co-op, I’m pretty sure it could rise quickly to unimagined global prominence.
If there’s one thing governments around the world want to know, it’s how to crack the problem of graduate un/under-employment. Waterloo cracked that problem decades ago, through co-op. It arguably has more experience in creating partnerships with business to help educate undergraduates than any institution on earth. Think of what that knowledge could do in China, where graduate unemployment runs at 3 to 4 times the national average. Think what it could do in places like Egypt, Italy, or Spain, where 30% youth unemployment is common. Heck, think what it could do in California. Waterloo campuses that focussed specifically on the co-op experience and promoted themselves based on employability would be a smash pretty much anywhere.
It wouldn’t be easy by any means. Businesses recruit differently everywhere; what Waterloo knows how to do in Ontario won’t necessarily work in Asia. But that’s a problem solvable with enough reconnaissance. Let the co-op experts roam the world to talk to businesses, and see how much of Waterloo’s shtick would actually work overseas, and what would need to be tweaked. It might not be worth exporting everywhere, but surely in some places a co-op approach could take root.
Waterloo’s value proposition isn’t Engineering; it is co-op and employability. And the market for that in undergraduate education is truly global. One might even say the world needs more Waterloo. The question is whether, once burned, the institution has the courage to take such a bold strategic step.