This op-ed was published in Embassy magazine on December 18, 2012.
By Paul Davidson
Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada
As part of the Governor General’s delegation to Mexico this month, I heard His Excellency David Johnston’s call for “the diplomacy of knowledge.” He describes this as the willingness and ability to work together—across disciplines and across borders.
That diplomacy, making people-to-people connections, is powerful. Reaching around the world to connect and collaborate on ideas will move us forward as a country. But instead of global competition for talent, we should think about global collaboration for talent.
We travelled to Mexico to promote further co-operation in innovation, technology, education and local development. It’s a start. Real change will come from developing more hands-on working relationships – those people-to-people connections.
On the academic front, there are compelling reasons to increase co-operation through student and faculty mobility and international research, not just with Mexico, but globally. China, India and Brazil, in particular, offer a growing wealth of opportunities on many fronts. And there is a certain urgency around our need to seize those opportunities.
Our workforce is aging. During the next 20 years, six million Canadians, the baby boomers, will be poised for retirement. But the working world they are leaving is vastly different from the one they entered. Our new entrants must have skills and knowledge far beyond the local markets we once served. The generation we are educating now must develop global skills. Their preparation will determine Canada’s prosperity for the next 50 years.
Part of the solution lies in attracting more international students. They enhance the educational experience of Canadian students by bringing global perspectives, languages and cultures to our campuses. They also have a tremendous economic impact on communities across Canada. While our country has plenty to offer, the lure of the United States is strong. So our efforts to attract people from around the world have to be bolder and louder.
Mexico, for instance, should be a natural recruiting ground. Geographically, it’s close. We have enjoyed nearly 70 years of diplomatic relations and cooperation in higher education. About 44,000 Mexican students pursued higher education abroad in 2008-09. The lion’s share of them, more than 14,000, went to the U.S. Fewer than 2,000 came to Canada, ranking us sixth, behind countries as far away as Germany and France. And even Australia is ramping up its efforts there.
I encouraged the students we met in Mexico to consider Canada. We offer an excellent education, coast to coast. Our universities and student living costs are affordable. And we welcome diversity on campus.
There is also plenty to commend in Canadian university faculties. Half of our faculty members were hired in the last decade. They are highly qualified, young and have fresh approaches to teaching and research. They are collaborative and globally oriented. Many have international experience. Meld that with the hands-on approach of co-op, internship and work placements that have become a distinguishing characteristic of the Canadian university experience, and the opportunities for innovative research and teaching are tremendous.
Businesses around the world would also do well to look to Canada as they recruit for internships. In addition to providing practical experience for a student on the cusp of a career choice, businesses benefit from a ready source of new ideas, approaches and energy. The soon-to-be-employed graduate either leaves with a knowledgeable understanding of the strengths of the business or becomes a job-ready, pre-screened recruit.
As a case in point, I met with a vice president of Bombardier Transportation based in Querétaro, Mexico. A graduate of Université de Sherbrooke, she started with Bombardier as an intern in the mid-1990s and never left the company.
Bombardier has established partnerships with leading Mexican universities, including Tecnológico de Monterrey. For its part, TEC Monterrey has networking agreements with 24 Canadian universities, illustrating the international appeal of Canadian university talent and expertise.
These kinds of people connections create opportunities for our students and researchers, and drive bilateral economic growth. Our federal government can help make more of them happen through a sustained, sophisticated and resourced strategy; a strategy that is sector-led and linked to national goals.
To dream big we must go beyond incremental improvements. Change will come not just from the number of agreements signed or visits made, but through a transformed relationship that is matched to the challenge and opportunity before us, in both scope and scale.