February 4th, 2011
There’s a real racket out there about internationalizing our campuses. Today’s recruitment game is all about keeping our enrollment figures—undergrad and grad—from slipping too precipitously along with the declining birth rates in most so-called First World nations. Over the last several decades we built our universities to handle the expected growth of a boomer generation, but that cohort is now officially over. The babies who boomed are now in their ‘sixties, counting their pensionable incomes and thinking about moving into a condo development somewhere warm and arthritis-friendly. They/we simply haven’t bred the way our parents did.
And, so, yes, the motivation has been, in the first instance, largely economic. We need to keep the whole apparatus of postsecondary education flourishing—to fill our classrooms, keep our jobs, maintain the entire learning system in the a manner to which we have become accustomed. No one wants to see our institutions shrinking. It would be counterintuitive, as well as counterproductive.
Sadly, Canada has been very slow among the OECD nations to get on the internationalizing bandwagon, and not just for economic reasons, with few exceptions. Until recently, most of our institutions simply ignored the trend. I have been to conferences at which senior administrators of large and reputable Canadian universities pretty much rolled their eyes every time someone mentioned attending recruitment fairs. Notable as an exception for its proactive internationalizing activity, UBC today boasts at least a third of its graduate cohort as internationals. As many have observed, perhaps it is easier to lure students to Vancouver when you have a genial climate, a stunning landscape of sea and mountains, and the reputation of being Hollywood North. But UBC’s president has long been an advocate of opening up our classrooms and our labs to foreign students, and he has pursued this goal with creative rigour, setting an example for the rest of us.
Last week a bunch of us here at Memorial listened to an expert on the subject of internationalizing our campuses, a terrific speaker and engaged authority, Dr. Daniel Guhr, who leads a California-based group called Illuminate. Indeed, Guhr shed a lot of bright light on the subject, having done his homework about the province’s economic and demographic trends. It’s always helpful to have a big picture and so much of what Guhr did at the outset was situate us in that frame. Many of us have already heard some of the facts and figures at other sessions, but Guhr has an admirable ability to animate that information in challenging and even provocative ways.
As we all know, many North American universities have looked to the huge mass of China as the main source of internationalization, but such dependency will now be a liability, as the Asian population drops off radically. A one-child policy has left China with an astonishingly low number of eligible university students. The policy might be changed overnight, but until then universities will have to look elsewhere for their incoming classes. Further, Guhr pointed out that there are over 200,000 students from away currently studying in China. The trend, in other words, is already shifting from the one-way traffic pattern we have been taking for granted to more of an exchange or back-and-forth dynamic.
Increasingly, North American students are seeking pathways abroad, including China, where they have the opportunity to study, learn Mandarin, and eat all that great food. Universities that recognize this shift, that appreciate the need to encourage more collaborative initiatives and partnerships with other universities, facilitating exchange, will likely benefit from such relationships.
The point is that Memorial, if it is to play seriously in the realm of international recruitment, cannot afford merely to be part of the bandwagon. It has to get ahead of it. China is already so yesterday. Or, as Andy Warhol once famously quipped, if everyone is wearing it then it’s already dated. Finding niche spots across the globe where students could be persuaded to attend a good island university perched at the very edge of the North American continent is our clear and present challenge.
That said, we are almost all on the same bandwagon, although we might end up taking it to different corners of the world. Apparently, everyone is hitching the wagon to Brazil these days. Do we really want to compete for Brazilian students with universities in warmer climes? Do we dance well enough?
You know the internationalization of education is the buzz when the Globe and Mail, our national newspaper of record, launches a web-based series on the topic (“Leading Thinkers –Brightest Minds”). It’s well worth checking it out on line. The Globe wisely drew on a number of leaders and thinkers on the subject, including the aforementioned president of UBC, as well as Ben Wildavsky, author of The Great Brain Race. The series is well worth checking out if you are in need of arguments defending the intellectual import/export business.
A couple of weeks ago our School of Graduate Studies successfully moved to have a new cotutelle agreement in place for those students seeking doctoral degrees here at home and one other university. In effect, the ambitious globe-minded student will secure two pieces of parchment from two separate universities for the one research project, say Memorial and the Sorbonne. There was a bit of a grilling about the proposal, and despite the fact that these agreements are increasingly common for all the reasons mentioned above, I could hear the skeptical resistance in the Senate chambers. Ultimately it passed, and hallelujah to that.
I can’t help think that in a very short time such resistance will be as dated as the existence of a real bandwagon. Opening ourselves up to the world is both a necessity and a much desired goal. Without doing so we’ll have neither a band nor a wagon to put them on.