Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: International

February 06


Here’s a new one: the Canadian Federation of Students has decided, apparently, that charging international students higher tuition fees is “xenophobic”.  No, really, they have.  This is possibly the dumbest idea in Canadian higher education since the one about OSAP “profiting” from students.   But as we’ve seen all too often in the past year or two, stupidity is no barrier to popularity where political ideas are concerned.  So: let’s get down to debunking this.

The point that CFS – and maybe others, you never know who’s prepared to follow them down these policy ratholes – is presumably trying to highlight is that Canadian universities charge differential fees – one set for domestic students and another, higher, one for students from abroad.  Their argument is that this differential is unfair to international students and that fees should be lowered so as to equal those of domestic students.

It’s not indefensible to suggest that domestic and international tuition fees should be identical.  Lots of countries do it:  Norway, Germany and Portugal to name but three and if I’m not mistaken, both Newfoundland and Manitoba have had such policies within living memory as well.  But the idea that citizens and non-citizens pay different amounts for a publicly-funded service is not a radical, let alone a racist, one.  A non-citizen of Toronto wishing to borrow from the Toronto Libraries is required to pay a fee for a library card, while a citizen does not.  This is not xenophobic: it is a way of ensuring that services go in priority to people who pay taxes in that jurisdiction.  If an American comes to Canada and gets sick, they are expected to pay for their treatment if they visit a doctor or admitted to hospital.  This is not xenophobic either: the price is the same to all, it’s just that we have all pre-paid into a domestic health insurance fund but foreigners have not.

It’s the same in higher education.  American public universities all charge one rate to students from in-state and another to those out-of-state.  Not xenophobic: just prioritizing local taxpayers.  In Ontario, universities are not allowed to use their tuition set-aside dollars – collected from all domestic tuition fees – to provide funding to out-of-province students.  Irritating?  Yes.  Xenophobic?  No.

International students are in the same position.  Their parents have not paid into the system.  Only a minority of them will stay here in Canada to pay into it themselves.  So why on earth should they pay a similar amount to domestic students?  And it’s not as if there’s massive profiteering going on: as I showed back here, in most of the country international fees are set below the average cost of attendance.  So international students are in fact being subsidized; just not very much.

In any event, even if we were charging international students over the going rate, that wouldn’t be evidence of xenophobia.  Perhaps it has escaped CFS’ notice, but there is not a single university in the country which is turning away undergraduate students.  According to every dictionary I’ve been able to lay my hands on, xenophobia means irrational fear and hatred of foreigners; yet now CFS has discovered some odd variant in which the xenophobes are falling over each other to attract as many foreigners as possible.

My guess is that most people at CFS can distinguish between “xenophobia” and “differential fees”.  What’s happened, though, is that part of the brain trust at head office simply decided to use an emotive word to try to stigmatize a policy with which their organization disagrees.  That kind of approach sometimes works in politics: just think of the success Sarah Palin had when she invented the term “death panels” to describe end-of-life counselling under American federal health care legislation.

But effectiveness is not the be-all and end-all of politics.  Sarah Palin is a cancerous wart on democracy.  You’d kind of hope our own student groups would try to avoid imitating her.

September 14

The Canadian Way of Study Abroad

A few years ago, I think around the time that HESA Towers ran a conference on internationalization, I realized there was something weird about the way Canadian higher education institutions talked about study abroad.  They talked about it as helping students “bridge the gap between theory and practice”, “increasing engagement”, and “hands-on learning”.

That’s odd, I thought.  That sounds like experiential learning, not study abroad.  Which is when it hit me: in Canada, unlike virtually everywhere else in the world, study abroad to a large degree is experiential learning.

In Europe, when they say study abroad, they mostly mean study at a foreign institution in the same field through the Erasmus program.  In the US, they may mean this, or they may means studying in facilities owned by their home universities but located in different countries.  For instance, Wake Forest owns a campus in Venice, Webster University has a campus in Leiden, University of Dallas has one in Rome (have a browse through this list). Basically, if your students are paying megabucks to be at a US campus, the ideas can’t just give them exchange semesters at some foreign public school because who knows about the quality, the safety, etc.

But look at how Canadian institutions showcase their study abroad: McGill talks up its science station in Barbados.  University of Alberta showcases its international internships.  University of Saskatchewan has a fabulous little Nursing programs which ties together practicums in East Saskatoon and Mozambique.  The stuff we like to talk about doesn’t seem to actually involve study in the sense of being in a classroom, per se.  That’s not to say our universities don’t have typical study-abroad programs: we’ve got thousands of those.  They’re just not where the sizzle is.  It’s a distinctly Canadian take on the subject.

This brings me to a point about measuring the benefits of study abroad.  Let’s take it for granted that being abroad  for a while makes students more independent, outward-looking, able to problem-solve, etc.  What is it, exactly, about being abroad that actually makes you that way?  Is it sitting in classes in a foreign country?  Is it meeting foreign people in a foreign country?  Is it meeting people from your own culture in a foreign country (too often the main outcome of study abroad programs)?  What about if you actually get to work in a foreign country? And – crucially for the design of some programs – how long does it take for the benefits to kick in?  A week?  A month?  A year?  When do diminishing returns set in?

Despite study-abroad being a multi-billion dollar niche within higher education, we actually don’t know the answer to many of these questions.  There isn’t a lot of work done which picks apart the various elements of “study abroad” to look at relative impact.  There is some evidence from Elspeth Jones in the UK that many of the benefits actually kick in after as little as 2-4 weeks, which suggests there may be cheaper ways of achieving all these purported benefits.

Of course, one of the reasons we have no answers to this is that it’s pretty hard to unpack the “treatment” involved in study abroad.  You can’t, for instance, randomly assign people to a program that just sits in class, or force people to make friends among locals rather than among the study-abroad group.  But, for instance, it would be possible to look at impacts (using some of the techniques we talked about yesterday) based on length of study abroad period.  It would be possible to compare results of programs that have students mostly sit in class to ones where they do internships.  It would be possible to examine internships based on whether or not they actually made friends among local students or not, a question not asked enough in study evaluation work.  It would also be possible to examine this based on destination country: are the benefits higher or lower depending on proficiency in the destination country’s language?

These questions aren’t easily answerable at the level of an individual institution – the sample size on these would simply be too small.  But one could easily imagine a consortium of institutions agreeing to a common impact assessment strategy, each collecting and sharing data about students and also collectively collecting data on non-mobile students for comparative purposes (again, see yesterday’s blog), perhaps through the Canadian Undergraduate Survey Consortium.  It would make a heck of a project.

If anyone’s interested in starting a consortium on this, let me know.  Not only would it be fun, but it might help us actually design study abroad experiences in a more thoughtful, conscious and impactful way.  And we’d find out if the “Canadian Way” is more effective than more traditional approaches.

Worth a try, I think.

September 12

How Many Canadian Students Study Abroad? How Many Should?

If you look at the current issue of Policy Options, there is a startling claim made in the sub-headline of an article by Universities Australia CEO Belinda Robinson; namely, that “five times as many Australian undergraduates are studying abroad as their Canadian counterparts”.  It’s not a claim Robinson herself makes – it seems likely that it’s been added by the editorial staff at Policy Options.  The problem is it’s not correct.

The Canadian numbers come from a periodic survey Universities Canada does of its members on internationalization (the last example of this is here).  The last time they did the survey they found that 2.6% of students did a “for-credit” international experience, and another 0.5% did a non-credit course: total, 3.1%.  That’s if you believe universities can actually keep track of this stuff; my guess is there’s a substantial number who can’t or don’t capture this data well – particularly in those cases where students are arranging foreign experiences on their own, so this number is likely at least a bit of an undercount.

Now, in the aforementioned article Robinson noted that over 16% of Australian students had an overseas experience of some kind.  Someone, clearly, took that 16%, divided it by the Canadian 3% and voila!  Over 5 times more!  Except this is apples and oranges: the Canadian figure refers to students who go abroad in any given year while the Australian figure is the percentage who go abroad at some point in their career.   We don’t actually know what percentage of Canadian undergraduates go abroad over the course of their degree.  Back in the days when we HESA Towers used to run a national student panel, we found that 8% of current students (in the panel, at any rate, which was skewed to upper-year students and hence should come closer to the Australian picture) had had some kind of exchange experience.

(This is one of those things we could answer pretty easily if Statscan put a question about it in the NGS, or if CUSC put it in their tri-annual surveys of graduating students.  Hint hint.)

Wonky figures aside, Australia does seem to have been doing something right over the past few years, having quadrupled its out-bound student flow since 2000, and perhaps Canada should be emulating it.  But there is a genuine question here about what the “right” number of students going abroad.  What‘s should our target be?  I’ve seen serious commentators say we shouldn’t be looking at Australia, but rather Germany, where something like 30% of students go abroad at some point (actually, it’s 30% of “upper-year” students have gone abroad, based on a survey of students – on which measure Canada is, as noted earlier, about 8%).

This strikes me as a bit pie-in-the-sky.  For a German student, the marginal cost of studying elsewhere in the EU is fairly low; over two-thirds of undergraduates in Germany already live alone (source – the excellent Eurostudent website), and they have a host of potentially awesome international destinations within a couple of hundred dollars transportation fare by budget airline.  In Canada, a greater percentage of students live with their parents, so the average marginal cost is going to be higher, not to mention the fact that most of the international destinations we care about (we’re inconsistent about whether or not to call the US an “international experience”, mostly we mean Europe and Asia) are a couple of thousand dollars away, and unless you live in Toronto or Vancouver, the costs of living abroad on one’s own are likely to be somewhat higher than it is back here.   So it’s overall a much more expensive proposition for Canadians than Germans.

And what are the benefits of study abroad?  Anything that might justify the extra expense?  Well, I’ll get into this in some length over the next couple of days, but ask yourself: when’s the last time you heard about a recent graduate getting or losing a job because of having/not having an international experience?  Exactly.  Whatever you might be able to get a corporate exec to say re: the need for global competencies blah blah blah, Canadian employers, be they in the private or public sector, simply don’t seem to care that much about international experiences (lest you think I am being harsh on Canada and its complacency in international affairs, I urge everyone to read Andrea Mandell-Campbell’s book Why Mexicans Don’t Drink Molson.  Tl:dr: too often Canadians believe the hokey “The World Needs More Canada” line when in fact the reverse is usually true).

I think it will be hard to make the financial case for raising our rate of outbound mobility, simply because neither students nor governments will put money into this kind of project if there aren’t clear signals from the labour market that the return will balance the expense.  Instead, study abroad will remain what it too often is now: a holiday somewhere nice.  For all the talk of study abroad as an inter-cultural experience, it is striking how many students take their study abroad in the US, the UK, Australia or France: in cultures not dissimilar from their own.

So how can we measure and sell the benefits of study abroad?  Tune in tomorrow.

August 03

A tipping point for internationalization?

Over the last few years, my position about internationalization has been pretty consistent: the international student market is going to grow and grow.  Talk about a China bubble – one of the education press’s favourite “what-if?” doom and gloom scenarios – is almost invariably overstated.  Yes, political instability in a place might China might occur, but Chinese parents think of having students overseas as an insurance policy, a way to get out if need be – so frankly if anything political instability there is likely to increase study abroad, not decrease it.  Fears about an economic contraction affecting internationalization?  We just had a Great Recession and international student numbers climbed right around the world.

The only thing that I think really stands in the way of continued growth in international student numbers is a major disruption in the international economic/political order, something on the scale of a major war, say.  And until now I’ve been pretty confident that this isn’t in the offing.  But after the summer of 2016, I’m not so sure anymore: turns out there are ways to effectively poison the prevailing economic/political order short of war.

To me, there are six big things going on right now which individually might not matter much but taken together signal real change: Brexit, the Syrian refugee crisis, the Turkish coup, Trumpism, the French election and the creeping cult of Xi Jinping.  None of these phenomenon do much to change outbound student-mobility at a global level in the short term.  Brexit might reduce foreign demand for UK education, but those people have options elsewhere; the Turkish coup, if anything, gives a boost to internationalization because there are going to be a *lot* of secular-minded students looking for an exit.  But in the medium term, it’s possible these changes herald a very different kind of world than the one we have grown used to.

Internationalization in higher education depends in large part on the notion that mobility – and not just study mobility but life mobility – is desirable.  If you’re a kid from an aspiring middle-class family in Buenos Aires or Beirut or Beijing, you want the foreign degree partly because the institution you might attend is better/more prestigious than the education might get at home, and partly because you think your degree will make you more valuable to a wider set of employers.  But if laws emerge which constrain businesses from hiring across national borders, that poses a serious challenge to the logic behind internationalization.

Trumpism and Brexit are both expressions of ugly nativism and herald exactly such a challenge.  Though they may not play out completely (Brexit may not happen, Trump likely won’t win the general election) they certainly suggest that the twin anglo-saxon motors of globalization are much less keen on immigration than they were.  The French election, which Marine LePen is now given a reasonable chance of winning, could see this momentum carried through to another major G-7 country.  The Schengen agreement is still wobbly thanks to the refugee crisis and Europe’s mostly short-sighted reaction to it and mobility within Europe may will be curtailed at some point.  In the developed world, where we used to see immigration in terms of doors and bridges between nations, increasingly we see only walls.  This is not good.

And that’s just what’s going on in developed countries.  The aftermath of the Turkish coup attempt has freed President Erdogan’s most authoritarian tendencies, resulting in a wholesale attack on universities and academics.  In China, universities are being purged of “western influences.”  In themselves, neither of these are going to reduce student flows; but in both cases you see major countries adopting more nationalist positions, and being more restrictive of press freedoms and freedoms of speech.  These spaces are becoming less open to the world, not more.  These are not conditions in which it seems likely that employers  will enthusiastically welcome students who have gone abroad for their education.

Put all that together, we could be going back to a pre-1989 world where the nation-state is much more powerful and paternalist and where individual mobility – at least, beyond simple tourism – is much more restricted than it is today.  Some people, I am sure, would welcome such a world.  Personally, I think it would be a disaster and a huge step backwards for progress and freedom.  Where universities are concerned it would be a disaster because it would erode the foundations of internationalization and student mobility.

I’m not saying this will all happen; a slow-down in the move towards globalization still seems more likely than an out-right reversal of it.  But this summer’s events make me much less confident about this than I have been at any time in the last thirty years.  Institutions with major stakes in internationalization would be wise to do some contingency planning.

March 04

A New Logo for Canadian Higher Education

Last week, the government of Canada announced to great fanfare (Hip Hip Hooray! Caloo Callay!) that Canada has a new international education brand.  They actually meant “logo” not “brand”, but whatever – long past due because the old logo was terrible.  To wit:













Ridiculous, right?  “Education in/au Canada”?  Most students who want to come study in Canada do so in order to improve their English, and Ottawa comes up with a logo that requires you to already be bilingual in order to understand it.  Mercy.

Now, here’s our new logo:











Um… OK.  That’s a little bit better, I guess.  But who in their right mind thinks the Canada word mark and the CMEC logo belong on this thing?  Are they worried that prospective students in Izmir, Lagos, or Dnepropetrovsk would think less of us as a study destination if those logos weren’t there?  That some eager would-be student from Togo would begin to get heart palpitations about the potential quality of higher education in Canada if the word mark wasn’t there?  That a potential Colombian graduate student would interpret the lack of a CMEC logo as evidence of a scam?

But if you really want to shake your head in despair, take a look at the Study in Canada website, which is probably even dumber than the old logo was – note that despite the big announcement, no one seems to have found the time to actually update the logo on the website.  Anyways, the website is a monstrosity.  Fifty per cent of it is blank space, and its overall web sensibility would have been considered primitive even back in the MySpace era.  Literally, the only thing you can say about it is that it meets official federal government web guidelines.

And this, in a very real sense, is the entire problem.  The logo, the website – pretty much everything about our  international education effort – is centred around what makes sense for governments and their bureaucracies.  It is not centred around students.  Go ahead, take a look at the Study in UK website, the Study in New Zealand website, the Study in Australia website, or even the German DAAD website.  Do you see a lot of white space?  In the case of DAAD – an organization partially funded by the Germans states (provinces), do you see any CMEC-equivalent logos cluttering up the visuals?

No?  Me neither.  Apparently, the awfulness of Canada’s efforts in this area are unique.  But as all those other efforts show, it doesn’t have to be this way.  We can do better.  It starts simply by asking: “are we doing this because it will make sense to students?  Or to governments?”

February 19

The Dollar Quandary

If you haven’t been hiding under a rock these last few months, you may have noticed that the US dollar is on a roll.  And it’s not just on a roll in Canada, where the price of oil has reduced the value of our own currency; since mid-2014, the US dollar is up over 20% against a trade-weighted basket of currencies. This creates some interesting conundrums and strategy options for pricing international education.

The change in the dollar’s status means that everyone’s price has been reduced vis-à-vis those at American universities. If you’re a university in, say, Sweden, it doesn’t matter much because practically all of your competitors are European. Basically: if your price isn’t changing relative to that of your main competitors, then the fall of the dollar is fairly meaningless.

However, if the fall in the value of your currency is greater than that of your competitors, then this does actually create some room to maneuver. I was in Russia last week, where the fall in the value of the rouble (76:1 USD, down from 37:1 USD at the end of 2014) means that their product is now much cheaper, relatively speaking, than that of their competitors, and that makes them a more attractive destination.  As a result, the Russians are now marketing themselves as a “bargain” product because, let’s face it, Russian universities have a brand image problem after the disasters of the 1990s. Their strategy is to go low price, high volume, and admit as many Asian and Latin American students as possible.

That’s one strategy. But there are others. If you are an Australian or a British university with a reasonable reputation, you might ask why you should keep your prices constant in local currency. If you think your main competitors for international students are American schools, you might also think it makes sense to take advantage of your lower currency, and increase prices a bit. It won’t necessarily hurt you with recruitment, and you can make a little bit of extra money in local currency terms. Basically, in these situations, universities have a choice between marketing themselves as a “bargain” institution (take advantage of low price to increase volume) or as a luxury institution (risk volume to increase price).

Now in Canada we have a somewhat different set of issues at play, for two reasons. First, we actually have a lot of American students, institutional pricing strategies need to take account of that market. Second of all, unlike European universities, Canadian schools can be very sure that US institutions are a major source of competition, and hence we have more scope to re-price based on currency changes. So here’s the question: should institutions take the “bargain” route and keep prices steady in local terms, or a “luxury” strategy that sees us raise prices, or perhaps even start charging in US dollars?

Essentially, this is the choice every institution needs to make over the next couple of months. I think there’s a pretty clear case for Toronto, UBC, and McGill to move to USD pricing, and keep last year’s fees constant in USD terms (that is, raise them by about 20% in $CDN terms). Will they lose some applicants? Probably. But they have the brand power to deal with that, and the students for which they are really competing are going to be paying more anyways to go to an American university. And the prize is a big whack of extra cash.

For everybody else, it’s a trickier proposition. Some institutions – particularly if they are experiencing recruitment shortfalls (say Trent, or any one of a dozen Atlantic universities) – will probably see more benefit in going the “bargain” route, and aggressively going after students looking for a “cheap” North American experience. Others – Windsor, perhaps – might decide to take that pitch directly to American students. The institutions with the trickiest task are the other U-15 universities. They might be tempted by the USD route, but may be unsure if they had the brand power to make it work. Expect a period of experimentation, not all of it successful.

In any case, for those interested in looking at price elasticity as a function of institutional prestige, the next couple of years promise to be quite interesting.

January 15

Political/Economic Risk and International Student Recruitment

A couple of big events occurred internationally over the last few weeks, which will matter to folks in the international recruitment field.  Briefly, they are:

1) The Saudis are pulling back.  Things are moderately bad in the kingdom right now.  Their gambit of driving down the price of oil in order to run the American fracking industry out of business is not working as quickly as they hoped, and may have re-established an era of cheap, $50 (or sub-$50) oil for the foreseeable future. (And yet Jeff Rubin still gets paid to dispense expertise.  Life is not fair.)  Plus they’ve gotten themselves stuck in a costly war in Yemen.  Result: Government deficits running at 12% of GDP.

Now, this isn’t the end of the world because their sovereign wealth funds are sitting on roughly a gazillion dollars in assets, and they can draw those down for awhile.  But still, economies have to be made, and that’s a tricky business in a country where the social contract is that the al-Sauds pay for everything in return for everyone agreeing to let slide the fact that the al-Sauds own everything.  Put it this way: foreign scholarships aren’t top of the list for cutbacks, but they’re not at the bottom, either.

It seems the way this is going to play out is with typical Saudi opacity.  Very quietly, schools are being told they are no longer eligible to be in the program.  It seems to have little to do with quality of individual schools or programs – the entire Atlantic region suddenly got cut off last month.  How many schools will this eventually affect?  Too soon to tell.  But even top schools need to be looking towards 2020 (the program’s current end-date) and wondering what comes next.

2) Brazil is suddenly hostile to overseas education.  Go back a couple of years and everybody loved Brazil.  They were spending money like nobody’s business on foreign scholarships through their Science Without Borders Program.  But things have been going sideways for Brazil lately for reasons eloquently described in last week’s Economistand the repercussions are severe.

Back in September, the government imposed a 40% cut to the program, which basically meant they could not accept any new students.  Now, a new draft law has been put forward, which places a tax of between 5 and 33% on any tuition fees paid outside the country (and yes, that does sound difficult to police – I think it’s only going to apply to fees paid through an agency, but it’s hard to tell from the article).

Of course, stories like this always bring up the dreaded question: what if the China market tanks?  Regular readers will know I am skeptical about talk of any China “bubble” in higher education, let alone a pop: in my view, political risk will likely increase the short-term flow of students rather than decrease it.  So there’s no need to get too panicky.  But these events should remind people that a sustainable recruitment policy requires some geographic diversification.

September 15

Visible Minority Numbers Rise Sharply

I was poking around some data from the Canadian Undergraduate Survey Consortium the other day and I found some utterly mind-blowing data.  Take a look at these statistics on the percentage of first-year students self-identifying as a “visible minority” on the Consortium’s triennial Survey of First Year Students:

Figure 1: Self-Identified Visible Minority Students as a Percentage of Entering Class, 2001-2013














Crazy, right?  Must be all those international students flooding in.

Er, no.  Well, there are more students with permanent residences outside Canada, but they aren’t necessarily affecting these numbers, because they represent only about 7% of survey respondents.  If we assume that 80% of these students are themselves visible minorities, and we pull them out of the data, the visible minority numbers look like this:

Figure 2: Visible Minority Students, International* vs. Domestic, 2001-2013














*assumes 80% of students with permanent residences outside Canada are “visible minorities”

That’s still a heck of a jump.  Maybe it has something to do with the changing demographics of Canadian youth?

Well, we can sort of track this by looking at census data on visible minorities, aged 15-24, from 2001 and 2006, and (yes, yes, I know) the 2011 National Household Survey, and then marry these up with the 2001, 2007, and 2013 CUSC data.  Not perfect, but it gives you a sense of contrasting trends.  Here’s what we find.

Figure 3: Domestic Visible Minority Students as a Percentage of Total vs. Visible Minorities as a Percentage of all 15-24 Year-Olds, 2001, 2007, 2013














So, yes, a greater proportion of domestic youth self-identify as visible minorities, but that doesn’t come close to explaining what seems to be going on here.

What about changes in the survey population?  Well, it’s true that the consortium metric isn’t stable, and that there is some movement in institutions over time.  If we just look at 2007 and 2014 – a period during which the number of visible minority students almost doubled – we can see how a change in participating schools might have shifted things.

Table 1: Schools Participating in CUSC First-Year Survey, 2007 and 2013




















Here’s what stands out to me on that list.  York and Waterloo are in the 2013 survey, but were not there in 2007, which you’d think would skew the 2013 data a bit higher on visible minorities (although not that much – together, these two schools were only 7% of total sample).  On the other hand, UBC Vancouver was there in the 2007 survey, but not 2013, which you’d think would skew things the other way.  On the basis of this, I’d say a school participation probably contributed somewhat to the change, but was not decisive.

I could end this post with a call for better data (always a good thing).  But if a trend is big enough, even bad data can pick it up.  I think that might be what we’re seeing here with the increase in visible minority students.  It’s a big, intriguing story.

June 03

International Speed-Dating in Boston

I spent part of last week at the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers (NAFSA) meeting in Boston. It was my first time at what is really quite an extraordinary event and I was pretty blown away by it all. If you want to understand all the glory and nuttiness that is higher education internationalization, I highly recommend a visit.

In theory, NAFSA is a traditional professional conference. And from a certain angle, it still resembles one, despite having 11,000 or so delegates. There are plenaries with big name speakers (e.g. Malcolm Gladwell), and there are a couple of hundred small conference sessions and panels. (I spoke at one of those, on the subject of rankings). But what tells you right away that you’re not in Kansas anymore is the floor show put on by the exhibitors.

I couldn’t tell you exactly how many exhibitors there were – my guess would be somewhere between 500 and 700 – but they came in all shapes and sizes. Recruiting agents were there, of course – some big, some small. Big vendors of services like language testing companies and pathways agencies. Individual educational institutions or – more often –booths for national agencies charged with promoting internationalization with lots of individual universities sheltering underneath the national banner. Plus there were a few little independent companies trying to drum up business for some occasionally quite oddball ideas. My favourite among those was a group which had somehow come into possession of some really quite stunning property in the Basque Country, and want to turn it into a kind of reverse-Minerva: people come from around the world while studying virtually elsewhere – the value-added being that the campus would provide ample support for experiential learning, and in particular applied research projects with local and international companies. As an idea, it’s just crazy enough that it might work if the right partnership arrangements can be made.

In fact the floor show is so overwhelming that it kind of overshadows the actual sessions. People simply wander around from booth to booth without ever making it to a session. Why would anyone do that, you ask? Well, this is the part that can make someone who views internationalization (among other things) with something of a skeptical eye a bit queasy. Obviously, all those booths are wonderful in the sense that they give you a sense of how many educational opportunities there really are in the world. But on the other hand, the economics of all this are quite puzzling. Remember, there are no actual students or parents – that is, people who might bring some kind of direct return on investment – seeing these booths. Mostly, the audience is other institutions. And so all that frenetic activity one sees o the floor is actually just a massive speed-dating event – institutional reps looking for other institutional reps with whom they can sign partnership agreements. That would of course be fine if partnership agreements actually meant anything. Problem is, most of the time they don’t: no one’s ever calculated the mode number of students coming to any institution via a given partnership agreement, but I’d lay serious money on that number being zero or one. Spending thousands of dollars on fees and sponsorship costs and hotels to do this is a bit weird, frankly.

And it’s not just individual institutions who seem to be spending over the odds for what they’re getting in return. Why are tiny Peruvian universities shelling out five figures to be platinum conference sponsors? Why was “Study in Turkey” one of the largest exhibitors (seriously, outside the Middle East, who wants to study abroad in an emerging authoritarian state)? There is an undercurrent of conspicuous consumption at the event, as if spending simply showing up here and making a spending a lot of money means you’ve arrived, internationalization-wise. The series of receptions and parties that surround the event reinforce that impression.

Put it this way: there’s lots of good stuff at NAFSA. There are plenty of excellent people to meet from around the world and you can see some of the most interesting aspects of internationalization in higher education as its being practiced around the world. But it’s also a schmooze-fest, with more than an occasional whiff of being a junket. Institutions wishing to attend or exhibit would be well advised to set some serious, meaningful goals for participation (preferably ones which do not prioritize signing yet more partnership agreements) in order to ensure value for money.

May 22

Waterloo, Core Strengths and Foreign Campuses

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.

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