When our Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD – not DFAIT as I said a few days ago; sorry) delivers something as bad as our new International Education Strategy, an inquest is in order. But since self-reflection isn’t exactly an abundant resource in Ottawa at the best of times, it’s an inquest we’re going to have to undertake ourselves.
Let’s start with the document’s basic failures:
- It effectively ignores the existence of a previous marketing strategy document, laid out by the provinces two years ago;
- It talks about increasing enrolment without assessing capacity constraints;
- It shows no obvious signs of being conversant with international education markets, how students choose their destination countries, or how students subsequently choose a country of residence;
- It misrepresents the quality of Canada’s education image abroad by ignoring DFATD’s own research on this subject;
- It spends an inordinate amount of time talking about discussions with the rarely-before heard-of “Canadian Consortium for International Education”, which is made up mostly of Ottawa-based industry groups (e.g. AUCC, ACCC, CBIE) who – surprise, surprise – reciprocated by praising the document to the skies, despite its evident thinness.
What, you might wonder, links these points?
It seems clear that the document’s authors valued pleasing the Minister and Ottawa-based education groups more than they valued functioning relationships with provinces and institutions. That’s a fairly common Ottawa problem. It’s much easier to work with tame, de-fanged Ottawa interest groups, who will always say “thank you” for a new government policy no matter how silly it is, than to deal with provinces who keep rudely reminding you that education is in fact their jurisdiction.
But that’s too easy an “out”. Lots of federal departments still talk to their provincial counterparts in a constructive way over areas of shared jurisdiction. The Canada Student Loans Program, for instance, manages to do this reasonably well – why can’t DFATD do so?
I see three possible reasons. The first is that the people asked to run with this file were junior, and didn’t know any better. The second, more likely reason is that Foreign Affairs is too sniffy to talk to mere provinces (“I joined the service to go to Rome, not Regina!”). But most likely of all is simply that the government just doesn’t care enough about this file to do a good job on it. Partly, that’s due to the regime, but the culture at DFATD is a culprit, too. My sense is that international education is a bit of a backwater there; people on the rise don’t stay very long. Actually doing a good job would require lots of tedious consultation with provinces and institutions. By the time the file actually achieved something that could be thrown on your CV, you’ve already moved on to your next rotation, so why bother? Better to dash off something quick for an “announceable” than to do the hard work for which someone else will inevitably take credit.
If that’s true, then the problem runs deeper than a single, deeply flawed report; there’s a whole institutional culture that stand between us and good policy-making. And the Ottawa NGOs’ habit of thanking the government any time it announces something, regardless of how inane, far from making things better is just enabling the dysfunction. We need to deal with this. Soon.