Attract the best students? Canada won’t even buy a glass of water

Mar 27, 2013 by

The Harper government boasts that foreign students brought $8-billion into the Canadian economy in 2010. When you consider what’s at stake, and the federal government’s goal to double the international student intake by 2022, it borders on the absurd to think that in promoting Canadian education abroad, the Canadian government is short of funds to serve a glass of water.

Such is the way Canada frequently presents itself as an international student recruiter.

This was on display recently when the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade held a major Canadian education promotion event in Lagos, Nigeria, in January.

In a venue where the air conditioning is hit and miss, it not only wouldn’t provide any food for the university and college representatives who paid thousands of dollars and came all the way from Canada – it said it couldn’t even provide water. It was deemed to be “not in the budget” by DFAIT officials in Nigeria to offer to the parched representatives.

“Put it in the feedback form,” was the best advice and the closest thing offered as relief by junior staffers in Lagos, according to one of my colleagues who attended.

Is a glass of water really a big deal?

It is a canary-in the-coal-mine example of how far Canada has to go to achieve the kind of brand consistency and recognition that befits the magnitude of the opportunity Canada has before it.

When the British Council blows through town promoting Education UK, you know it – advertisements, aggressive school outreach programs, and first-class event venues proclaiming ‘brand Britannia.’

The U.S. State Department regularly sponsors significant cultural and other outreach programs to raise the profile of American culture and education in countries around the globe – often bringing in top artistic and academic talent to work with local high school students.

Juxtapose the February 2013 DFAIT press release trumpeting the success of International Trade Minister Edward Fast’s trade mission to Africa. The minister crossed paths with the Canadian education events on at least one occasion in Nigeria, yet made absolutely no mention of the education outreach events at all. This is the norm for how poorly Canada coordinates its efforts. When we consider that Canada spends a tiny fraction of what its competitors do on promotions, making the most out of a little is critical.

Canada has an excellent global brand, but fails to take advantage of this by attracting enough quality students to its world-class public universities (most of Canada’s recent self-proclaimed foreign-student recruitment success is a result of mediocre students filling classrooms in colleges or in foundation pre-university programs).

Canada’s international student recruitment is akin to Apple computers circa 1990 – a superior product but inferior marketing and hence a miniscule market share (if only Canada had a Steve Jobs to market the Maple Leaf abroad!)

Some relief could be in sight: Last week’s federal budget did pledge additional funds to recruiting international students. Yet the 2011 budget made a similar pledge – of $10-million spread over two years – and there was little evidence of this spending visible abroad. And these funds are miniscule compared to those being spent by our competitors, especially Britain and the United States.

If the doubling of international student numbers is achieved in Canada by 2022, it means an estimated $18-billion contribution to the Canadian economy in that year alone. That’s a big-picture, big-ideas scenario, not one allowing room for the sort of execution that does not provide a glass of water to its participants.

Yet that moment was not an exception. One weekend this winter, when Canada was holding another such no-frills education fair in Nairobi, Kenya, the U.S. State Department flew in top Broadway performers hold a glamorous concert, featuring Academy and Grammy award winners spending the better part of a week working with local high-school musical talents and spreading word about their EducationUSA brand.

Americans have been hugely successful in international student recruitment for generations – and, no doubt, they had plenty of water available during their performance.

Mel Broitman is managing director of the Canadian University Application Centre and the editor of Overseas, Overwhelmed, where this article first appeared