Why universities are trying to recruit overseas students from as many places as possible

Canadian universities are riding a wave of popularity as destinations of choice for overseas students.

But the high-water moment comes with risks. Of 356,035 Canadian study permits issued to international students at post-secondary institutions in 2018 alone, 54.1 per cent went to students from only two countries: India and China.

“The tide is high, but there’s no telling when the tide goes out,” says Craig Riggs, editor of ICEF Monitor, a leading industry publication that tracks global trends in higher education.

To safeguard against geopolitical uncertainties, and to counter stiff global competition for international students, Canadian universities are adding scholarships, hiring education agents, opening overseas offices, establishing overseas partnerships and recruiting alumni as word-of-mouth ambassadors. Fuelling the effort is a five-year, $148-million federal government plan, announced in August 2019, to expand study abroad by Canadian undergraduates, diversify where overseas students come from and where they study in Canada, and to support Canadian institutions in forming partnerships with their counterparts in other countries.

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The goals of this plan differ from those of the federal government’s previous five-year international education strategy, announced in 2014, which emphasized growth. One reason: by 2018, the post-secondary sector had shot past the government’s goal to add 450,000 international students by 2022. For universities alone, recent growth in demand from overseas students has been remarkable. Last year, the federal government issued 120,000 permits for international students to attend university, a 50 per cent jump in volume from 2015. China and India were the top two sending countries for the post-secondary sector as a whole, but for universities they accounted for 48.5 per cent of total study permits last year.

The government’s new focus for the next five years, says Riggs, “is less on growth, more on diversification, and more on strengthening the quality of the students’ experience during and after their studies.”

In short, the hunt is on for top students—not only from China and India—to enrich campus life and spread the word back home about Canada as an attractive study destination.

By that measure, Kenya-born Odero Otieno fits the bill for any Canadian university.

One of six children whose parents never completed high school, the 24-year-old student from Homa Bay in western Kenya had a fistful of accomplishments before he chose to study abroad. He scored top marks on national high school exams in Kenya, became principal of a girl’s school in his home city and pursued several entrepreneurial ventures.

In 2016, he left Africa for the first time to study at McGill University on a full scholarship from the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program for promising young leaders from Africa. A foundation partner since 2013, McGill plans to enrol 91 young African scholars over 10 years.

Last year, McGill recruited more than 12,500 students from 156 countries, led by China, the United States and France, but had a limited presence in Africa. No one country comprised more than 22 per cent of the total.

“This [relationship with MasterCard] is a way for us to really prime the pump in terms of getting [African] countries up in our participation,” says Fabrice Labeau, deputy provost of student life and learning at McGill. He describes sub-Saharan Africa as “clearly an under-represented region in terms of nationalities” at his university.

Otieno, who graduates next year with a bachelor in engineering and a minor in technological entrepreneurship, says the academic and emotional support from McGill and foundation staff helped him secure internships in Canada, the United States and Kenya. A stint at Google in San Francisco convinced him to build his own company, he says, not work for others.

This fall, he announced plans to open a Toronto-based company developing software for African consumers to use mobile phones to make cost-saving purchases from authorized pharmacies.

He credits McGill with building his confidence.

“Just the fact that I am a McGill student makes me think I am a global scholar or leader and makes me want to do so many things,” says Otieno. When he is back in Kenya, prospective students are eager to hear about his experiences in Canada and, on his return to Montreal, they follow him on Facebook for his posts about academic life on campus.

For universities, a single event last year underscored the reality that diversifying their sources for international students, however necessary, is not without pain.

In a 2018 diplomatic spat with Ottawa, the government of Saudi Arabia abruptly cancelled funding for its post-secondary students in Canada, ordering many to leave their studies....

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