If we’re going to get into this international education business seriously, then we need to drop a lot of the pretense and mythologizing that goes on in the field and take a really hard-headed look at what our strengths and weaknesses are. These come into two categories: things we say all the time that aren’t really true, and things which are true but which we are reluctant to say.
The alleged “truth” that bothers me the most is the one about how international students love us Canadians because we are “friendly.” This pleasant and cozy self-image is, unfortunately, not necessarily how international students actually see us.
“Friendly” has a number of shades of meaning. It can mean “welcoming”, which we are, up to a point. But it can also mean “easy to be friends with,” which frankly doesn’t describe Canadians at all. Most international students report that it’s difficult to form close friendships with Canadians. Though pleasant and helpful, we aren’t actually all that open to new friendships. It takes a very long time for Canadians to get to the point with someone where we say “please, come to our house for dinner” – an act which in many cultures signals the beginning of a real friendship. Lots of international students never have that moment with a Canadian. Thus, in addition to “friendly,” international students also use words like “distant” and “superficial” to describe us.
That’s not fatal; nothing says we have to be friendly to be a great education destination. But we shouldn’t try to build a brand around a promise we can’t deliver on. That’s just bad business.
On the other side of the ledger are promises we can deliver upon but never make. And number one on that list is our status as an English-speaking country.
A very high proportion of international students are looking specifically for an education in English. We can and do deliver that. But for political reasons, the federal government feels it cannot say that out loud. And so English-language education, which is one of our obvious value point, is not only unmentioned in our national education branding efforts, it’s actively undermined with the frankly bizarre “Education au/in Canada” brand strategy.
(Seriously – did no one focus test this slogan on foreign students before launching? It only works if you’re already bilingual. If, on the other hand, you have only a moderate capacity in one language and none in the other, it’s just downright confusing).
These examples are symptoms of a common problem: too often our approach to international education is based on comfy pre-conceptions rather than honest, rigorous analysis. If we’re going to double our numbers, that needs to change.