Canada's struggle to attract foreign students becomes Charest campaign focus
The Canadian Press
November 21, 2008
MONTREAL Canada's struggle to attract foreign students became a focus of Jean Charest's election campaign Friday as the Liberal premier of Quebec promised new measures to attract and keep the world's best and brightest.
The premier said attracting smart students will be critical to success in the 21st century economy and he lamented that countries like Australia and the United Kingdom have outflanked Canada.
Charest promised a major recruitment campaign to attract more young talent from outside the province if his Liberal government is re-elected on Dec. 8.
He also promised special certificates for foreign graduates from Quebec's post-secondary institutions which would allow them to live and work in Quebec.
A recent study by the Canadian Bureau for International Education found that only one-third of international students remain in Canada after graduating – this despite chronic labour shortages in the country.
Quebec has fared even worse, with less than one out 10 graduates remaining in the province.
The vast majority of the 25,000 non-Quebec students who get post-secondary degrees in the province each year either head to English-speaking provinces upon graduating, return to their own countries, or seek jobs elsewhere.
“In a few years, Quebec and Canada will be in strong competition with other developing countries to recruit qualified manpower,” Charest said.
“We don't see it today but in five, six, seven, eight years, you'll see a real competition to get manpower to build our economy.”
The international education bureau said 66 per cent of Canadian employers have reported trouble finding qualified people to fill positions, far higher than the 40 per cent global figure.
And the country is not faring particularly well at attracting students to fill the gap: Canada ranks 14th among 30 OECD countries as a preferred destination.
Less than three per cent of international students who leave home head for Canada compared with 22 per cent for the United States and 12 per cent for the U.K.
The education bureau's Jennifer Humphries says countries like Australia have pulled together with a co-ordinated national effort to market the country abroad. Her organization notes that federal and provincial websites from Canada often provide confusing or even contradictory instructions to foreigners.
“It's really been very frustrating over the years because even though there's good will, there's no co-ordinated strategy,” she said in an interview.
Humphries said a new Education Canada brand which was launched by provincial education ministers in September, might finally help attract foreign students.
The federal Conservative government has also adopted strategies over the past year similar to the ones Charest promised Friday, as part of a broader reform of immigration rules. Ottawa is also putting in place rules to make it easier for foreign students to find work here.
“Now all of the provinces have to pull together,” Humphries said.
The day began early Friday on the Quebec election trail.
Charest's main opponent in the campaign leading to the Dec. 8 election, Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois, took journalists out for her regular morning walk at 5:45 a.m. to debunk stories that she's ill and too tired to campaign.
The PQ released its fiscal platform, forecasting budget deficits for two years that would slowly give way to a $400-million surplus within five years.
But election chatter was dominated Friday by the performance of Quebec's giant pension-fund manager, the Caisse de depot et placement.
Charest's opponents accused Charest of mishandling the agency and demanded that it release interim performance figures for this year.
The agency called a news conference to quell fears that it is mounting disastrous losses and to deny suggestions that it takes instructions from Charest. The arm's-length Crown agency controls an estimated $155 billion in assets.
Caisse officials refused to release interim figures and insisted they will only publish their annual numbers at the end of the fiscal year.
Caisse chairman Pierre Brunet said the agency has enough liquidity – at $20 billion – to weather the ongoing economic crisis.
Charest's opponents tried to lay the blame for anticipated Caisse losses at Charest's feet, the same way Charest did to the previous PQ government while he was still in opposition and the Caisse suffered losses prior to his 2003 election win.
Marois compared the premier to a gambler. Action democratique du Quebec Leader Mario Dumont said Charest had allowed the Caisse to play the lottery with Quebecers' money.