Canadian federal plan hopes to attract foreign students

Concerns about whether universities and colleges can absorb the influx of new bodies without jeopardizing their students' experience are being raised after a new federal plan to nearly double the number of foreign students in Canada by 2022.

To have 450,000 foreign students studying in Canada by 2022 – up from 265,000 in 2012 – is the aim of the federal government's new international education strategy, unveiled on Wednesday by International Trade Minister Ed Fast. Despite critics calling the blueprint short on specifics, universities and colleges have mostly welcomed its ambition. However, the plans and promises set out in the strategy may not be robust enough to reach its lofty goals, and further spending and planning will surely be needed, as warned by some university leaders. Without taking spaces from Canadian students, which some university presidents believe will take delicate planning, particularly at larger urban schools that are already short of space, Mr. Fast insists that his plan is realistic. President Sheldon Levy said that Ryerson University in Toronto receives about 70,000 applications for 6,500 first-year spaces. He would love to accept more domestic and international students, but "the reality is that we have limited capacity."

"We would have to put together a major plan around this … to ensure that domestic students were not displaced by international students," he said.

Mr. Fast said that the strategy aims to better coordinate recruiting efforts and give Canadian students more chances to go abroad, tying Canada's education brand abroad more closely with trade diplomacy to get stakeholders "pulling in the same direction." It tags $5 million per year for marketing, most of it targeting six key markets including China, India and Brazil. Expecting that they would bring nearly $8 billion annually in new spending to Canada's economy, it promises to make it easier for foreign students to arrive, work and stay in Canada.

Diversifying Canada's student population is supported by all. However, referring to it as lightweight and misguided, some critics have panned the document.

Higher education consultant, Alex Usher called it "little more than a collection of gestures attached to a wish list," while Jim Turk, president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, called it "strictly a money grab" that ignores what's best for foreign students. "They don't have a clue how we're going to get there," Mr. Turk said.

Praising the strategy for giving Canada's education sector a national face and encouraging more cooperation in outreach efforts, university leaders have nothing but praise for it. However, they admitted that it needs fleshing out.

"I'm hopeful that this strategy sort of represents a first set of steps and isn't the end of the process," said Stephen Toope, president of the University of British Columbia.

As reported by James Bradshaw of The Globe and Mail, universities will have to spend heavily on support and space for the next quarter-million foreign students, according to Mr. Toope, who lauded the plan.

"We cannot simply bring in a bunch of people and throw them in without support mechanisms," he said.

With government grants to schools stalling across Canada, "let's be frank, [that investment] will come from international students themselves" through the higher tuition they pay, Dr. Toope added, but "we can't let the provinces off the hook entirely."

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