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Monday, May 6th, 2013

Canada’s int’l edu strategy: Low-lying fruit

Two weeks ago I met with an excellent engineering degree graduate in India whom I counselled for a master degree in Canada. He was dubious about this study pathway and asked me point blank: “Sir, why then do most Indians go for Post Graduate Diplomas ?”

This question and the answer reveal where Canada is headed in terms of international students in the country.

India produces hundreds of thousands of engineering graduates each year, with scant numbers of them equipped to handle jobs which Canadian engineers do. Most of India’s engineering graduates move into jobs which pay them around $400 per month, and many even accept employment which pay more, but it’s to answer phones for foreign companies who have offices abroad for marketing and technical support (it may very well be an Indian engineer who answers the phone to help you with setting up your new cell phone account).

Most of these prospects for overseas study are young men who want to get out of India, and in places such as the Indian state of Punjab, most of them want to go to Canada. In terms of whom of them is capable of doing a Canadian master degree, that number is very small. Yet huge numbers are flocking to Canadian colleges, amassing in the big urban centres (some community colleges in Toronto have thousands of Indian students).

For most of them, their Canadian college admissions are easily obtained through the myriad of education agents who will say anything to land the business. When I come across a quality student who should target a Masters program, it’s a shame to see them have no counselling for it. But if the post-grad diploma (PGD) is all the agent has to sell (or it’s more lucrative for the agent), too commonly then that’s what they sell, regardless of what’s best for the student.

Fact is, Canada takes very few students into its masters programs. There are too few places on offer at Canadian universities and in most cases they require outstanding students, for which there are not so many in the marketplace (and Canada is rarely a first choice destination for those top scholars).

So what is happening is that for most international students, the route to Canada is to apply for a PGD at a Canadian community college. Most of these are one year specialized technology or business programs, and some of them are quality programs. Of course, few colleges refuse anyone and for at least half of the students (and probably more as these numbers go up), getting to Canada is about work and not study – whether it’s washing dishes, bussing tables or selling shoes – they want the dollars now, even though some are selling short on their futures.

This is what happened in Australia in the previous decade, as its public and private sector institutions attracted tens of thousands of foreign students for one year post graduate diplomas and certificates (Australia also has plenty of substantively weak master programs, and give Canada a nod for thus far holding the line on academic standards there).

Many of Australia’s diplomas and certificates were (and still are) predominantly weaker than what Canada currently has on offer, but since foreign students are no longer flocking Down Under as before, that huge market of mostly mediocre academic talent wants Canada. An Area Director with the once Aussie-only mega education agency IDP, which now works for a myriad of Canadian colleges, told me that Canada has never been a target for quality students, and now the majority of the weak student pool want Canada’s college diplomas.

So now Canada’s economy, both above and below ground, is the target for the tens of thousands of college diploma students currently in Toronto and Vancouver.

I told the young Indian engineering graduate who asked me why the PGDs are most popular – the truth. That most people can’t handle a Canadian engineering master degree. Most international students are looking for a quick diploma and a job. It’s low-lying fruit in terms of recruiting academic and future employment talent, but that’s Canada’s current international education strategy.

It now begs the questions if it’s the right strategy ? Does it fill needed employment vacancies or simply add to future underemployment issues while not addressing the need for high end talent and ingenuity.

1 comment

#1danjoecosMay 10, 2013, 7:39 am

Thanks for posting these kinds of descriptions and asking questions following such great content. I’ve read that the last time Canada wanted and needed exponential growth in its higher education package was to meet demand trends from the baby boomers. At that time, Canada couldn’t keep up with its own needs for fresh academics and took a low hanging fruit strategy to acquire a large number of academic bottom feeders from abroad (Yankee Go Home, Granatstein:1997). Unfortunately many of these would have been pushed up the chain of command which resolved to under-develop Canada’s international academic wing abroad. If Canadian institutions were managing effectively over those decades instead of generating from two to five dollars of income for every hundred tax payer dollars for commercial research, they would have already set up branch and satellite campuses in India and other major markets (as Australia has done) selling their short course offerings offshore, generating the operating costs and income necessary to finance their own IDP. That’s another great example of Canadian institutions abdicating their responsibility for international marketing to a foreign power. Isn’t it a paradox that businesses cry fowl when foreign interests take too big a chunk of Canadian resources but Canada’s international strategy gets designed by Americans and marketed by Australians? The issue appears to be in the case of HDR, Canadians would like international students to pay more and be more educated than Canadians who will do the same job for more money and less education. Not a bit of it makes sense. In my mind, not enough leaders in Canada have the high end integrity or ingenuity to be the first to say that? It leaves it to me, patiently seeking employment in Canada for fourteen months to say it.

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About Mel

Mel has consulted universities, colleges, governmental and non-governmental organizations in the field of international education since 1997. He is co-founder of Higher-Edge, the parent of Overseas, Overwhelmed, and a director of the Canadian University Application Centre. He is a former award-winning CBC reporter and holds a Masters degree from Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.

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