Internationalization, Immigration and Canada’s Universities

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Daniel Woolf, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Queen's University

Let me open this blog with three propositions that few, I think, would dispute. First, that while our homes and workplaces may be in Canada, we also live in a global marketplace (or if you prefer, a global village) in which contact, commerce, dialogue and political and social interaction with persons in other countries is going to become more, not less, common. Second, given this first point, it would be better to educate the next generation of adults in ways that prepare them to navigate this world, by exposing them as early as possible and in as many ways as is possible to other cultures, other systems of thought, and other languages (even with English threatening to become a global common tongue). Third, that given a shrinking workforce projected over the next few decades (people are having fewer children and retirees are living longer—though it is also true that people are working later in life), and the likelihood that some young and midcareer Canadians will themselves emigrate, it would be prudent to act now to attract as much young talent from across the world into Canada, in particular in areas requiring ‘Highly Qualified Persons’. If one also understands that future productivity will come increasingly from entrepreneurship, innovation and new-enterprise startup rather than exclusively from employment within existing large firms, then deepening our talent pool becomes even more sensible a course: immigrants who can come, stay, and develop new products and businesses, will be a long-term boon to the economy and in turn generate employment.

Canada’s universities provide an ideal magnet to attract global talent into the country. Some of it will stay, some of it will re-emigrate elsewhere, and a good deal of it will return home (also desirable—it does Canada and nowhere else any good if the rest of the world is further impoverished by us, and other economically advanced countries, draining the emerging economies of the world of their talent.) And in fact, we have an unprecedented window at the moment to raise our game in the recruitment of international students at all levels, including research-stream doctoral candidates, postdoctoral fellows, and young faculty members. To repeat the well-known facts: Canada is seen as a safe country, economically advanced, and much more inclusive in its values than some others. The post-911 world has thrown up barriers in many other countries, and postsecondary systems that have had a huge lead on us in recruitment (the United Kingdom and Australia for instance) have suffered some setbacks to their own intake of international students.

And, progress has been made in recent years. In 2012 Canada hit a milestone, admitting 100,000 international students, an increase of 60% since 2004. Recently proposed changes to the International Student Program will streamline work permit access to students at designated institutions. Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), the federal ministry responsible for oversight of our visa and permit system, has recently rolled out a new on-line application procedure for temporary residents, including students and foreign workers which should help.

At the same time, however, barriers exist that threaten this momentum. Budget restraint has obliged CIC to close a number of visa offices in recent years. Students from Japan, for instance, no longer have access to an office in Tokyo. While the on-line option will help, those wishing to make a paper application must apply to the Canadian visa office in Manila. The best possible applicants—the ones we most want to attract into our programs—will have other options from other, closer countries and may simply judge this too much of a nuisance. It is also unclear to what degree students in other countries are aware that an online application option now exists, and some efforts will have to be expended by both CIC and Canadian postsecondary institutions to ensure that this is communicated clearly and widely.

Our international talent recruitment is not, however, limited to students. Recent concerns over the hiring of temporary foreign workers into jobs that could be occupied by Canadians have cast the media spotlight on to immigration and, with the economy still a bit shaky, stirred up fears that companies will hire cheaper foreign labour (quite aside from their off-shoring of some relatively low-skilled service functions, such as call centres), further threatening our recovery. While there are certainly legitimate grounds for worry about abuse here, it is important that we not throw out the baby with the bathwater and over-react in a protectionist manner.

One area in which Canada has gone 180 degrees within a short span of less than 15 years is the recruitment of foreign academics. While we must appropriately give first consideration to Canadian citizens and permanent residents, along with other equity considerations for recruitment in targeted groups, it has nonetheless become more possible since the turn of the century to hire faculty at both the junior and senior levels from abroad. The Canada Research Chairs (CRC) program, and more recently the Canada Excellence in Research Chairs (CERCS) have been a major catalyst of change here.

A recent development, reported by university faculty recruitment officers, has hampered efforts here: a requirement that shortlisted candidates for Canadian postdoctoral and faculty positions who are enrolled in US doctoral programs but are citizens of certain other countries, either make in-person visits to a limited number of visa offices in the US or wait for several weeks, even months, for a Temporary Resident Visa that would allow them to attend an on-campus interview. Such interviews are a mainstay of academic recruitment and not replaceable by Skype or conference call. Candidates need to visit our campuses and home cities for them, and us, to determine if the fit with their talents and interests and our departments’ academic needs truly exists. Advising our academic departments who wish to interview such candidates that they must allow several weeks between striking a short list and actually conducting the interviews doesn’t really address the issue. If you are a highly employable doctoral or postdoctoral student with several different interview invitations from American and other international universities, are you likely to hold off accepting those invitations, and potentially decline firm offers of employment, while you wait for a visa to pay a 2 day visit to a Canadian campus?

Staff at Citizenship and Immigration Canada have shown great understanding of some of the challenges faced by universities in their international recruitment programs, but their ability to respond is constrained by government policy and especially budgetary limitations. We need to ensure that CIC is adequately resourced so that they, and we in the postsecondary world, can present a welcoming gateway to future Canadians, and not a series of discouraging barriers. If we don’t, we may make some short-term fiscal savings, but we will be undermining our longer-term prosperity.

Daniel Woolf is Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, a U15 University. He is also Chair of the Standing Committee on International Relations in the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.