Friday, 17 August 2012

Towards a Canadian international education policy

Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has just published the report of a working party on producing a national international education strategy.  If you're surprised that they don't already have one, bear in mind that education is controlled at provincial, not national level, and while provinces such as British Columbia have had active policies for more than a decade, others have evolved more slowly.  

For a UK reader, International Education: A Key Driver of Canada’s Future Prosperity will have echoes of familiarity for those who remember the Prime Minister's Initiative (the panel even says that it "sees the Prime Minister as a unifying champion for international education").  In places there are even explicit references to aspects of UK international education policy which the report reccommends Canada learn from: such as the "complex and multifaceted bilateral agreements with priority countries" (presumably UKIERI and UK China).

However, before anyone in the UK is tempted to bask in reflected glory or assume the Canadians are just playing catch-up, there are some important issues here.  A central message of the report is that the UK (and US, Australia and New Zealand) are currently facing some significant challenges, and that Canada is well-placed to step in and claim greater market share (the suggested target is to double Canada's 240,000 in 2011 by 2022).  It "define[s] Canada’s value proposition as one of offering high quality at affordable costs in a safe, multicultural environment."  A key issue here is that Canada is not just looking for international students to come, study and return home.  With significant issues about meeting future labour market needs, this policy is as much about skilled migration as it is about exports and soft power. 

A second issue is that while Canada is becoming more strategic in its approach to international education, the UK has been steadily losing focus on this issue.  Current tensions between the Coalition government's immigration policy objectives, and its economic and educational objectives are currently impeding any joined-up (or as the Canadian report calls it "aligned") policies.  And whereas in Canada the lead is coming from the department responsible for foreign affairs, here the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is far from leading, while BIS and the Home Office try to reconcile their differing objectives.

On a more positive note, all those who believe more UK students should be encouraged to study abroad (something on which David Willetts and Damian Green can no doubt agree, though probably for different reasons), will be heartened to see that the Canadians are recommending that "substantial resources" be invested in maintaining mature markets such as the UK.  So although on the one hand it's tempting to shout "The Canadians are coming!" in relation to their increasingly active international education policy, let's hope we can balance it with "And the Brits are heading over there in response!".  After all, international strategies shouldn't be all one way.

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