The Federal Task Force on International Education reported last week. It was… how to put this? Very Canadian.
In essence, the report reads as though the goal of keeping all major stakeholders sweet trumped the goal of providing clear, bold thinking about Canada’s internationalization strategy. It’s worthy without challenging any conventional thinking. It puts forward an ambitious goal without spending much time working out the details of getting it done (the phrase “stakeholders should co-ordinate” does too much work in this paper). The words “social media” get waved around like a magic wand. The need to prioritize between markets was punted (recommendation 6 essentially says we should prioritize all foreign markets that everyone else already prioritizes).
Take, for instance, the issue of the goals of internationalization. There’s a fundamental tension between the idea of international education as an export product and that of international education as a talent magnet. The former implies that we are in it for the short- and medium-term financial benefits. Like Australia, we’d be selling seats in our very good universities to people from poorer countries so that we can subsidize our own domestic education system. If this is the goal, we can’t be terribly choosy about who comes here—if you’ve got money and a minimum of ability, we’ll take you. One thing it definitely does not imply is scholarships—if you’re in it for the money, subsidies actively miss the point.
The latter idea—internationalization for immigration—implies that money in the short-term is secondary. Basically, like the U.S. before about 2010, we really just want to cherry-pick the best and the brightest from abroad and entice them here with juicy research grants. In this strategy, scholarships make complete sense, but doubling the volume of students to somewhere in the neighbourhood of 450,000 per year does not; it’s quality, not quantity, that matters. Neither, in that case, should we be spending time chasing after high-school students (foreign high-school students who apply to Canadian universities are usually academically weaker than ones who come direct from their own country—their goal in coming here before the age of 18 is to improve their chances of getting admitted).
There’s nothing inherently wrong with either of these strategies, nor even anything wrong with pursuing both simultaneously. But they’re different, and they need to be resourced, pursued and evaluated separately as well, even if they both form part of a larger grand vision. A strong strategy document would have mapped this out carefully; what the task force presented instead was a jumble of worthy goals and promising-but-not-radical tactics. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the report, but there was an opportunity to do much more.