Canada’s international education sector sets clear calls to action

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  • Stakeholders want a “whole-of-government” approach to the sector at large
  • CBIE president Larissa Bezo told The PIE a National Dialogue on the issue was “long overdue”
  • One attendee said while the dialogue event is an “important step”, it must continue to inform policymaking

Key international education stakeholders from across Canada are calling for an integrated “whole-of-government” approach, at both federal and provincial level, to inform decisions on goals, targets and priorities of the international education sector.

At the same time, they are seeking a forum for supporting ongoing multi-sectoral dialogue to create a stable, “no surprises” planning and policy environment for international education.

It follows on from Canada’s cap on international student permits, which many complained was initiated without consultation from the sector.

The proposed actions were among several discussed over the course of a two-day National Dialogue session convened by the Canadian Bureau for International Education.

Over 225 participants from across Canada’s international education community participated in the session, including senior officials from relevant federal and provincial ministries, leaders from educational institutions, business associations, community service providers, researchers, student associations, national and regional educational associations and a representative group of international students.

“In convening this event, CBIE was acutely aware of the urgency to provide an inclusive forum in which key international education stakeholders could share insights and work towards consensus on how the sector can and should evolve,” said Larissa Bezo, president and CEO, CBIE.

“The frank, open and constructive discussion that took place was long overdue,” she told The PIE News.

“The key takeaway is that we as a sector need to establish an ongoing mechanism or focal point to sustain this type of multi-stakeholder dialogue in order to advance a more responsible and sustainable Canadian international education sector for the long-term.

“CBIE looks forward to sharing the key recommendations that emerged from the National Dialogue’s multi-stakeholder discussions with federal and provincial governments, event participants and key stakeholders in the coming weeks,” added Bezo.

“There is much work to be done and we all have a role to play in creating a supportive and welcoming environment for international students in ways which uphold the integrity of the EduCanada brand and secure Canada’s long-term position as an ethical leader and top destination for global talent.”

As part of the dialogue, Bezo sat down with immigration minister Marc Miller for a fireside chat, in which he outlined his vision for the International Student Program and made it clear that caps on international enrolments are here to stay.

Stakeholders also expressed the need for a pan-Canadian framework for ethical international education practices that applies to designated learning institutions, which they say should feature clear lines of accountability for delivering results, and would become an “integral part of the EduCanada brand”.

The topic of Canada’s labour shortages was prominent across the two-day event, and the sector is now calling for a “more systematic processes to link enrolment decisions to short and longer-term labour market and demographic needs at the community level,” CBIE said in a statement.

“It’s important to meet those labour shortages,” Graham Barber, assistant director of international relations at Universities Canada, told The PIE.

“To look at our labour market short-term to long-term, that level of social engineering or planning is very difficult. It’s very complex and so to look at this in a simplistic way of one student into a construction program equals one house built in ten years – that’s not really the way this works.”

Instead, Barber said the issue must be looked at in a broader context – in a more holistic way – and with critical thinking.

The country needs “a good mix of people that are coming”, through skilled trade programs, critical thinking lenses and various fields, he continued.

Further calls to action resulting from the event include the need for a coordinated national effort to produce, mobilise, and share timely and complete international education data to inform sector-wide policy and program decisions.

At the same time, stakeholders would like to see a new narrative launched – one which showcases the value that international students bring to Canadian campuses, businesses and communities as both temporary residents and prospective future citizens.

“The Canada brand has really suffered over the past year,” Barber noted.

“There have been a number of changes and I think some of [those], whether they’re necessary or not, led to some instability in the sector.

“That level of instability leads to students not being assured that Canada is going to remain the same welcoming place that it always has been, and that that’s very troublesome as a narrative.

“The minister himself had talked about this in his session, that at some point, regardless of the need for those changes and the importance of those changes, the instability itself becomes the problem,” Barber explained.

We really need to send that message abroad and let students know Canada’s still very open to international students

Graham Barber

CBIE, and colleagues, are calling for the efforts to be made as part of a wider, coherent and integrated national effort to rebuild Canada’s education brand and secure its as a “top destination for global talent”.

“We really need to send that message abroad and let students know Canada’s still very open to international students,” added Barber.

“We want to welcome them here, and our institutions really do value them for the positive contributions they make in the classroom when they’re at the institutions and afterwards, to our society as a whole.”

One practical action would be a renewed international education strategy for Canada in which the government shows its support for international students, Barber detailed.

The current international education strategy is due to expire this year.

One attendee, Amira El Masri, director of the office of international affairs at McMaster University told The PIE it was “inspiring” to see various stakeholders coming together “to advocate for the well-being of international students and the quality and integrity of the Canadian international education sector”.

“While I see this as an important step, it is important to maintain continuous dialogue that informs policymaking and program development.

“There is a critical need for a national table to regularly convene to provide a solid platform to discuss the needs of the international education sector, foster collaboration and coordination between the diverse stakeholders, identify and support the implementation of innovative solutions to current issues, and explore ways to ensure that Canada continues to be globally engaged and positively contribute to the creation and exchange of knowledge, social change, and fostering of mutual understanding and respect.

“During the conference, there has been some discussions on aligning the international student program to the Canadian labour market needs. However, I would like to stress the importance of focusing on the value of our education globally, allowing students to access local and global labour markets and networks.

“After all, international education is about transcending borders to address complex global problems,” El Masri added.

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