March 27th, 2014
There I was, walking through Green Park in central London just the other day. Swans were gliding, buds were sprouting, tulips were boasting. Not hard to take, especially after our interminable winter. I love London, always have. Even in March, the streets around Parliament are bursting with tourists from all over the planet, everyone gawking at Big Ben and soaking in the history, popular versions of which have been serialized for television. We’ve all seen the Tudors and so one half expects Henry VIII to round the corner with his latest bride in tow. Well not really, but you know what I mean. The city is alive with a strong sense of its imperial past, no escaping it.
I attended the annual International Higher Education Forum, a one-day symposium blocked with speakers from various UK universities. Even the UK Minister of State for Universities and Science (interesting portfolio) gave a spiel about how important internationalization was. This was somewhat ironic in view of the government’s recent heavy-handed clamping down on immigration.
Two Canadians had been invited to speak, me and the president and CEO of the CBIE (Canadian Bureau for International Education), Karen McBride. We were scheduled at the end of a long day of presentations and so the challenge was to liven up the crowd, make ‘em laugh, at least. Karen painted a pan-Canadian picture of what was happening around internationalization, stressing the growth in university enrolment across the country and the federal government’s obvious interest in intensifying that trend. I followed with a presentation on the approaches we have taken in Graduate Studies at Memorial to increase our international cohort while encouraging our own students to travel abroad and our faculty to engage in collaborative research across the globe. Late in the day, and conscious of boredom creep, my main ambition was to get the audience to appreciate who and where we were. I think they got that, at least. But we also have a really good narrative to relate about how we have taken on the internationalization challenge with full force, with much success. One huge advantage Canada has over the UK right now, in addition to much cheaper tuition fees, is a much more liberal immigration policy, province by province. While I was speaking about this the tweets were flying around the room, with UK attendees openly envying our system and wishing the Minister would have lingered to hear why a good immigration policy is good for the nation. Britannia doesn’t rule, after all.
While in London I was invited to the High Commission in lovely Grosvenor Square. Gordon Campbell, former BC premier, runs that shop, and he is a big supporter of education. He has given the subject special attention and I met with the Trade Commissioner in charge of that newly defined beat. One evening, she hosted a recruitment session for potential undergraduate students. I went along with a colleague with whom I was traveling. Several dozen parents accompanied their children to hear four speakers, representatives of Atlantic Canadian universities, including ours, talk about the merits of studying abroad. It was fascinating eavesdropping on what were essentially pitch sessions. I admit my colleague and I cringed at some of the generalizations tossed out to the audience like confetti. And I question why (some) recruiters need to dumb down the complexity that is Canada. The curious and well-meaning folks in attendance didn’t need to hear lame messaging about maple syrup and poutine—I mean, really? Why resort to such clichés when you are speaking to a crowd of people about higher education? It’s demeaning.
But what was enlightening was seeing so much interest in studying in Canada. I would love to know how many of those at the event would actually translate their interest into applications forms.