Canada’s comparative advantage in education

Guy Breton, recteur de l’Université de Montréal

I had the pleasure of meeting the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, at an international conference last Spring in Montreal. He was very interested to learn from our conversation that the Canadian university network in other countries was a great deal more extensive than he had realized. The little known fact is that our Francophone universities are indeed very active in countries that are of strategic concern for the World Bank and many other international organizations.

Take armed conflicts, for example. No less than 54% of UN Peacekeeping Forces on the ground are deployed in Francophone countries: Haiti, Lebanon, the Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Sahara Desert. And the world’s leading network of Francophone researchers on peacekeeping isn’t in France. It’s in Montreal.

To help get its education system back on its feet after the 2010 earthquake, the Government of Haiti appealed to eight Francophone universities in Canada, including the Université de Montréal and the Université d’Ottawa. Together, we’re partners in CIRSEH,[1] a consortium of universities still working to restore the Haitian education system.

Through researchers at UdeM, Canada has also taken part in efforts to boost effective healthcare systems in some 30 developing countries, at the request of local governments they work with in close cooperation.

Besides offering Canadian researchers outstanding opportunities in the field, these initiatives are reshaping the university aspect of Canada’s brand image in countries that have traditionally turned to Francophone Europe. The presence of Francophone universities in Canada is a definite comparative advantage in attracting international students – an advantage we should do more to develop.

French-speaking countries are not the only places where a real interest in higher education in French exists. Thanks to a generous scholarship program, Brazil has sent 100,000 of its students to the best foreign universities. The number one destination for the Brazilian students is, not surprisingly, the US. And what’s the number two destination? France. French was for a long time the foreign language most frequently studied in Brazil, and a great many Brazilians to this day are Francophiles. In their case, being able to study in French in Canada could be a decisive factor in their choice of university.

Canada ranks sixth among countries that attract the largest numbers of international students after the US (16% of the total), the UK (13%), Australia (6%), Germany (6%) and France (6%). Our own figure is 5% of the international total.

While this certainly isn’t bad, we could do better, given that we’re one of the very few countries in the world that offer top-level higher education in two major languages. In our recruitment initiatives abroad, we should be doing more than simply provide bilingual documentation. The great variety of our universities should be an integral part of our brand image. Montreal is the second largest French-speaking city in the world, after Paris. Let’s make this clear to those potential students from Brazil, China and other countries.

The issue here goes way beyond the mere question of attracting international students. Having great universities is one of the best ways for a country to extend its cultural, political and economic influence in the world. Every year, Canadian universities create thousands of ambassadors in our international graduates returning to their home countries.

Many of these graduates will go on to hold decision-making positions. Some will open doors for our own entrepreneurs, diplomats, researchers and artists. That’s how we create our networks in a globalized world. And thanks to our Francophone universities, we’re spreading this web of connections to cover emerging regions like West Africa, which will see the highest rate of growth on the entire continent in the next two years, according to the African Development Bank.

Germany and France are investing hundreds of millions of dollars to promote their universities in other countries. Both countries are doing this as a matter of foreign policy. Canada’s efforts have been rather more modest. That’s why we should try to make the best possible sales pitch. And the presence of outstanding Francophone universities in our higher education sector is a major selling point we should not ignore any more.

[1] Consortium interuniversitaire pour la refondation du système éducatif haïtien