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"Creating global campuses fundamental in sustaining our universities"

This article was published in Progress Magazine on October 1, 2010.
Written by Frank McKenna.

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Here’s an encouraging sign for a nation whose future prosperity increasingly relies on brain over brawn: university enrolment continues to grow in Canada. An additional 40,000 students entered campus life in 2008/09 - a year over year jump of 3.7 percent. Better yet, the number of university students has been growing since 2002.

Yet demographic forces threaten to undermine our future pipeline of knowledge workers. It’s an all too familiar theme in Atlantic Canada.

With fewer high school graduates, the local pipeline for university prospects dwindles. It’s near impossible for any one province, let alone government, to reverse this population trend in short order.

But there are other factors within our reach. To begin, the provinces have done a good job of ensuring local high school students actually graduate. Moreover the number of these students pursuing post secondary education (including colleges) continues to rise.

But the reality is our region has always and will likely remain a net-importer of students from the rest of Canada and internationally.

In my opinion, we must work more effectively to attract and retain more students to Atlantic Canada.

A recent initiative by Nova Scotia offers a particularly innovative approach. “Canada’s University Capital” positions the province and its 11 universities as an education destination of choice. Prospects click on a website to meet professors and learn more about each school.

For me, the innovation - the breakthrough idea - is the cohesive experience for visitors of the campaign website. In many cases these institutions compete for the same student. Yet they figured out a collaborative approach in the hopes that a rising tide lifts all boats.

But we should also think beyond Canada. Indeed, as we have done commercially for more than a century, the greater opportunity lies in accessing world markets. In effect we must create global campuses.

We are already well-positioned.

Currently 80,000 international students attend Canadian universities, making up 7 percent of the undergraduate student population and 18 percent at the graduate level.
About 10 percent of students in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia enrolled in university are from outside Canada, with some individual campuses actually double the provincial average. And along with PEI, these three provinces posted the strongest growth of international students with 10 percent annual increases between 2000 and 2006, the most recent StatsCan data compiled. Indeed, Halifax’s two largest universities – Dalhousie and Saint Mary’s -- host students from more than 100 nations. Eighty countries are represented on the Memorial University campus. And UPEI students come from 50 nations around the world.

These students deliver huge advantages to these provinces. International students currently contribute $6.5 billion annually to the Canadian economy. They help supplement post secondary education costs for provinces. And as graduates, many become valuable additions to local workforces, and productive members of society. Research suggests that more than 30 percent of foreign or international students apply for permanent residence in Canada. Even if they go back to their home countries, the alumni networks provide potential economic ties in the future.

We need to build on the momentum. Consider India. Right now, there are approximately 2,800 Indian students in Canada. Australia has ten times our share.
The pipeline however has barely been tapped. India is expected to have 30 million students looking for a post secondary education in 10 years time. The demand will overwhelm the local supply, and as such, many middle-class students will look abroad for a quality education. There are similar opportunities in other countries such as China, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia, where a concerted effort between countries is underway to grow the student population.

We must ensure these and all other countries look our way.

A group of Canadian university presidents will be visiting India this fall, as part of a mission led by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. Their aim is to help build mindshare for Canada’s post secondary school sector, and in doing so, strengthen academic relations between the two countries.

Atlantic Canadian provinces must support and build on these international efforts. Given the size and scope of our sector, we have much to gain in defining the Canadian brand, and enhance ties to global markets.

Moreover, in keeping with marketing talk, we have the opportunity to develop an exciting “sub brand”, positioning our network of 17 universities as an Ivy League north. Clearly, there is compelling evidence that highlights our academic excellence. You cannot come across any ranking without schools in our region being featured prominently. I’m thinking of Maclean’s as just one example.

Our offering can be distinguished even further. The cost of living, quality of life, and diverse community settings create unique student experiences, which are second to none. I’d also add that the international composition of students, already evident through the university network, turns our campuses into global intersections, where young minds share ideas and insights – a highly desirable experience for a new generation of global citizens. Our appeal is wide. We have something for everyone.

Of course, this regional initiative is easier said than done. The universities operate in a hyper competitive market, and the notion of greater cooperation between schools will be met with some resistance. And undoubtedly, a closer look at pan-Atlantic Canadian approach will raise some tough questions. Still we see examples where this works at the provincial level – EduNova comes to mind.

Moreover we cannot allow perfection to be the enemy of the good. Our future prosperity requires us to grow our university enrolment. There’s every reason to believe we can attract students from Hong Kong to Hyderabad.

In short, our provinces must find ways to work in greater collaboration on the global stage. This is a theme I have addressed before, and will again. It is the surefire way we will remain relevant in an increasingly competitive world, whether it’s to attract new investments, workers or students. Our success begins by coming together.


Executive Headshot :  Frank McKenna
Frank McKenna
Deputy Chair
TD Bank Group

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