Sometimes it seems as though Canadian higher education can only ever have one good idea at a time and everyone has to join the scrum around that idea. For the last couple of years in international education that idea has been grabbing international students from India, an idea which seems to have pushed out expansion pretty much everywhere else.
(Ok, before anyone says it – yes, we at HESA are a bit guilty with that too, with our India Survey, but at least we’ve got plans to do another 19 countries as well.)
But apart from problems of portfolio risk, is India really the international market we want to be tapping? Why wouldn’t we want to spend more effort attracting students from more developed countries, with better secondary schools (meaning more able students), and with families better able to pay international student dollars? It would have to be a country whose higher education system was undergoing problems of its own, of course, and one where there was already wide acceptance of spending big dollars for top education.
Think such a country doesn’t exist? Well, it does: Japan.
One consequence of the twenty year-long recession in Japan has been a fall in the number of Japanese students going overseas. The reason: hiring season for the big Japanese companies starts in April, which put foreign-educated students at a serious disadvantage in a difficult labour market. But an over-reliance on local university talent hasn’t turned out so well for Japanese companies, who are increasingly unhappy with the kinds of graduates local institutions are churning out.
As an article in a recent edition of The Economist points out, demand for foreign-trained graduates is growing, and firms are altering their hiring practices to better include them. This could be the spur to a sea-change in attitudes, and institutions that get in early will have an advantage in coming years.
But to really attract top candidates, institutions will need to make a credible case that they can provide modern, high-tech, professionally-oriented education that is relevant to the Japanese economy. Forming an advisory committee consisting of representatives from some key Japanese employers to help tweak program offerings before heading into this market could be an important part of institutional success in the area.
Time for a pop quiz. Name a developing Asian nation that:
- Had GDP growth of over 5% most years since 1995
- Has a population over two-thirds of which speaks English
- Has a secondary school attainment rate of almost 90%
- Has a seriously underdeveloped higher education system
- Has been sending an average of over 15,000 people to Canada as immigrants each year since 2001
The answer is important because, let’s face it, a country like that has to be worth some time serious time and energy as far as recruiting international students, right? In fact, it sounds like Nirvana. There must be hundreds of recruiters there right now, mustn’t there?
For those of you who think this quiz is pointless because the answer is “India” and there are already thousands of recruiters there already, you are 100% wrong. Back of the class, please.
The answer is the Philippines. It’s not quite an Asian tiger but its GDP-per-capita is substantially higher than India’s and its secondary school system isn’t anything to sneeze at. Moreover, unlike India, Filipinos are used to paying lots of money for higher education (given the country’s underdeveloped public higher education sector, private higher education with its attendant fees is the norm).
So why aren’t Canadian recruiters falling over themselves to go to the Philippines? Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe it’s because of the two countries’ relative size. Maybe, it’s because of the kinds of stereotypes associated with immigrants from both countries (India is often associated with scientists and PhDs; the Philippines tend to be thought of in terms of nurses and domestic employees).
But maybe, also (say it softly), Canadian institutions have trouble doing things that are even a little bit contrarian. When’s the last time you heard of Canadian recruiters going somewhere that was virgin territory? More often than not, we’re following a few years behind trails already blazed by Australians and others.
Which is too bad, frankly. Once the U.K. and Australia fix their visa issues (something they are well on their way to doing), Canadian institutions won’t be able to count on a seemingly limitless stream of Indian students anymore. They might just need to start developing some new markets rather than go to the same well over and over again. The Philippines might be an interesting place to start.
Let’s say you’re an institution interested in moving into new international markets. India’s been done to death, coastal China’s saturated and the Europeans aren’t interested in coming to North America. So what do you do? You look for new markets – preferably ones with weak post-secondary systems, rising family incomes, and yet to be seriously exploited by foreign recruiters.
Here’s the three we’d pick right now:
1) Indonesia. Two hundred million people, an Asian tiger, and yet arguably one of the weakest higher education systems in the entire world. Universitas Indonesia isn’t bad as south-east Asian flagship universities go, but with the country only spending 0.3% of GDP on higher education, most of the HE system is a wild west of poorly-regulated private institutions. It’s a potential bonanza.
2) Russian Federation. The Putin comeback seems to be cycling to a close. Almost a third of Russians between 25 and 39 now say they’d like to emigrate – and higher education abroad can certainly help. Russia has pickings intellectually: there is an enormous amount of talent in math, science and computer science. For the moment, Russians prefer to head to Europe, but as that continent’s prospects darken, they might give Canada a look – if anyone in Canada were to bother with the Russian market, that is.
3) Italy. Italy might not fit the traditional definition of a new market for higher education, but make no mistake – young Italians want out of their gerontocratic society. Unlike students from developing countries, their secondary education tends to be similar to our own, meaning they have fewer adjustment issues and higher success rates. In the south at least, there will be many with family ties in Canada, a factor which has been of immense importance to Canadian institutions in bringing Indian students to our shores. And – not to be sneezed at – a far greater proportion of Italians are able to afford our fees. There’s literally a world of opportunity in higher education – at least for these who want to strike out on their own a bit.
One of the most startling things about Canada’s recent success in attracting international students is how easy it has all been. Australia and the U.K. took decades to build up their position in international higher education, and in the former case it took decades of government-backed investment in developing overseas networks. Our recent extraordinary spurt of growth in international higher education – particularly in the Indian market – came in the space of about five years in a comparatively uncoordinated way.
So are Canadians just brilliant at this stuff or are there other factors at work?
I’d argue for the latter. Consider that in recent years the Americans have been imposing ludicrous visa regimes, the U.K. has been making menacing noises about rejecting international students and Australia’s image has been tarnished by events that have highlighted problems of racism and student security. We’ve therefore reaped the benefits without making any serious investments ourselves. We didn’t hit a triple; we were born on third base.
But this situation isn’t going to last forever. Universities around the developed world are heading for big trouble financially, and they are all going to be spending more time trying to tap the foreign student market. And in the developing world, institutions are improving all the time and improving their value position vis-à-vis our own. Competition is going to increase, and it’s not clear how well placed we are to win.
At HESA, we’ve developed the Global Student Survey to examine the views of students in various exporting countries about education in general and international education in particular. Our India survey, available for purchase as of today, shows some of the obvious vulnerabilities that Canadian institutions have, and the value proposition and the rising competition from Indian institutions are clearly there.
More importantly, our national brand in education is a problem. We rank well behind the U.S. and U.K. as a destination in Indian students’ minds, and even Singapore and the U.A.E. peg above us in some categories. And whereas Indian students describe American, British and Singaporean higher education in terms that are generic synonyms for excellence, Canada gets described like this:
Forget the temporarily rosy enrolment statistics: we have a problem here. We ignore it at our peril.