The government of Canada has a message for people in other countries who might consider coming to its universities to study: “It’s not all snow and ice here!”
At least, that’s one of the messages that Canada is sending out on websites and social media and in other types of marketing in its relentless bid to capture a bigger share of the increasingly competitive international student market.
Later to the game than many other countries, Canada is a case study illustrating the reasons and the means by which governments are working to lure foreign students – especially from high-growth countries such as China, India and Brazil – and the obstacles to succeeding.
Now, more than a year after a report by Ipsos Reid, the Canadian arm of the international polling company, found that a five-year, multimillion-dollar campaign called “Imagine Education au/in Canada” had failed to make inroads in those countries, the government has significantly expanded its efforts.
“It’s almost becoming a cliché to say it, but the world is getting smaller, so the competition is growing,” says Sean Simpson, vice-president in Ipsos Reid’s Toronto office.
The number of post-secondary students enrolled abroad worldwide has doubled since 2000, to about 4.5 million, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, and is projected to grow to 6.4 million by 2025.
A new international education strategy, announced in January, will spend C$5 million (£2.8 million) a year to brand and market Canada as an education destination to some of these prospective students in Brazil, China, India, Mexico, Turkey and Vietnam, plus C$13 million over two years to promote research and training links. The materials will be customised to each market.
Those are places with which the Canadian government has been aggressively seeking closer trade and investment ties, and attracting international students from them is seen as a crucial way to help.
Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister, has visited Asia to work on strengthening economic connections, while in 2012, David Johnston, the governor general, took 30 Canadian university presidents to Brazil to promote Canadian higher education and research agreements.
Birth rate in decline
There are also domestic considerations. Canada’s birth rate has declined below the level needed to replace the population without immigration, the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada reports. And the 265,400 international students in Canada in 2012, the most recent year for which the figures are available, spent C$8.4 billion, helping to sustain 86,570 Canadian jobs and generate C$455 million in federal and provincial tax revenues, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development.
Those are among the reasons why many governments globally are trying to increase their international student numbers – in Canada’s case, to 450,000 by 2022.
According to the OECD’s Education Indicators in Focus report from July 2013, Canada is the sixth most popular destination for international students, after the US, the UK, Germany, France and Australia, but still has a market share only a fifth the size of that of the US and less than half that of the UK.
It promotes the broad recognition of its post-secondary credentials, its comparatively safe, welcoming and multicultural society and the possibility of immigration, along with the relative affordability of its university tuition. International students pay an average of C$18,641 in annual tuition fees.
Plus, “the appeal of a city like Montreal, if you speak French and want to come to Canada—what a terrific option”, Simpson says. In his home city of Toronto, he adds, half the residents are immigrants, making it incredibly diverse.
“The fact that students from more than 180 countries studied in Canada in 2012 speaks directly to the attractiveness of Canada’s education systems,” says Claude Rochon, spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development.
Yet in the countries whose students it most wants to attract, “Canada is not a top-of-mind destination”, Ipsos Reid found after conducting focus groups and one-on-one interviews with students, parents and educational advisers.
“There is no awareness that Canada has world-class educational establishments,” other than the University of Toronto, the survey report said. “Given that the presence of world-class educational establishments is the leading factor that drives the choice of a foreign destination for education, this lack of prominence is a serious obstacle.”
What students in the sending countries wanted but didn’t get from Canada’s international education promotional campaign, Ipsos Reid found, was information about university rankings, leading programmes and famous alumni of Canadian universities.
“We don’t have a school that’s a Harvard or a Yale or a Berkeley or a Stanford, or one that’s as recognisable as those big names,” Simpson says. And being cheaper may not equate to extra appeal, he continues. “There are a lot of wealthy families out there in developing countries that say, ‘I want my child to go abroad and have the best education possible’, and they perhaps equate spending more money with a great education.”
Give it time, says Gail Bowkett, director of research and international relations for the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.
“It wasn’t that long ago that Canada had no national brand for marketing its education sector abroad. It’s still quite a new brand. So the Ipsos Reid study may have shown there wasn’t the depth of penetration in those markets we might have hoped for, but you have to take that with a grain of salt.”
Simpson agrees. The government’s goal may have a seemingly short time frame, but shifting perceptions takes a while, he says.
“The more that Canadian schools focus on international education –and on key markets for a while, like China – the more it will make inroads and start to get the word out internationally,” Simpson adds. “You’re not going to turn into Harvard overnight in terms of your awareness and prestige.”
Need to develop a national brand
Bowkett says that Canada’s commitment to the issue is evident in the very fact that it is attempting to develop a national brand. “There’s room to tweak that brand and to improve on it, but it’s a national recognition of the importance of bringing students into Canada.”
Competition for these students, worldwide, remains “quite intense”, Bowkett adds. “The number of students that are internationally mobile in the world is increasing. Students who have an ability to go elsewhere, will. So it is very much about building awareness and building your brand and making those mobile students aware of the value proposition.”
As for that snow and ice, which the Ipsos Reid focus groups said really is an impediment for Canada among prospective students, Canadians prefer to celebrate it, according to Bowkett, who lives in Edmonton, Alberta, which experiences very cold winter weather.
“On the weather front, this is a northern country,” she says. “We have winter. There’s no two ways about it. And that can be a perception issue, and it can be an issue for students coming from warmer countries.”
So the challenge is to portray it for students from places such as Brazil and India and China as a positive.
“We joke about the weather that we have in Canada,” Bowkett continues. “That brings us back to the marketing and how we explain that and how we convey that.”
And how is that, exactly?
Bowkett replies: “It’s about a whole new experience and opening up new experiences – in a whole new climate.”