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International education: a foreign policy imperative

The Hill Times

Canada's education system has always underpinned our evolution as a prosperous and modern democracy.

In an increasingly borderless 21st century-in which knowledge exchange and connectivity between people and organizations drive progress and innovation-international education is increasingly understood as being critical to the way Canada interacts with the world.

International education, in other words, is integral to our foreign policy.

The Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade has for years been highlighting the importance of international education in advancing Canada's international relations.

In a May 2012 report, for example, the committee identified education "as a key driving force in intensifying Canada-Brazil relations."

A June 2013 report on Canada-Turkey relations recommended, "that the Government of Canada develop a foreign policy strategy that features a Canada brand and profiles Canada's advantages, notably in technology and education."

Many of the committee's recommendations on international education are today reflected in the Government of Canada's International Education Strategy.

Developed over two years by a dedicated Advisory Panel, the IES recognizes international education as a sector that generates $8-billion annually for the Canadian economy.

Its objectives include: doubling Canada's international student base to 450,000 by 2022; strengthening coordination among governments, the Council of Ministers of Education and other stakeholders; improving marketing and branding; promoting research and educational exchange partnerships; and increasing the number of students who stay in Canada as permanent residents after graduation.

In 2013, the IES was incorporated as a key element under the Government's Global Markets Action Plan.

With opportunities to study in English driving at least half of the seven million students expected to be enrolled in tertiary education outside their home countries in 2020 (up from 3.8 million in 2011), Canada, with its quality institutions and reputation for public safety, is well-placed to benefit from its existing strengths as an international education destination.

In addition to attracting students to Canada from around the world, however, Canada needs to find new ways of getting more Canadians to study abroad.

About two per cent of Canadians of tertiary education age study abroad in a given year. This compares reasonably well to 4.3 per cent of Germans, 3.6 per cent of French, 1.1 per cent of Britons and 0.3 per cent of those from the United States.

But these figures are largely a reflection of Canada's high level of tertiary education attainment.

The three per cent of Canadian undergraduates who study abroad for credit in a given year, by contrast, compares less favourably to the estimated 30 per cent of German bachelor's and master's students who complete part of their studies abroad.

Germany's "Go Study Abroad!" campaign, launched in 2006, seeks to increase this figure to 50 per cent, including through initiatives aimed at encouraging German high school students to consider studying abroad.

Other countries have launched similar initiatives.

In 2009, the United States sought to increase the number of American students studying in China through the "100,000 Strong" initiative. A second such program targets Latin America and the Caribbean.

Australia's New Colombo plan encourages Australian undergrads to study and undertake internships within the Indo-Pacific region.

Brazil's "Science without Borders" program offers 75,000 publicly financed and 25,000 privately financed scholarships to help Brazilian students pursue science and technology studies abroad.

These programs share a common understanding that international education is critical for any nation seeking to build international competence and foment people-to-people ties between innovators, professionals and business people around the world, and to develop goodwill and understanding between populations of different countries.

A poll released by the Angus Reid Institute on Sept. 28 showed that 57 per cent of Canadians thought "building better trade ties with international partners" should be the top priority of our foreign policy.

Dr. Saul Klein, dean of the University of Victoria's Peter B. Gustavson School of Business, commented on the poll in The Globe and Mail.

"If there's one overarching factor in what really counts for the difference between success domestically and internationally," he said, "it is an understanding of cultural complexity and differences."

A growing number of governments and foreign policy experts around the world view international education as being critical towards that end.

For Canada, in particular, heavily reliant on trade and with a history of leadership in knowledge-intensive industries, international education inflows and outflows must remain central to the way we interact with the world.

Conservative Sen. Raynell Andreychuk is the former chair of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

Raynell Andreychuk is senator for Saskatchewan.