The father of Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, once noted that living beside the US was “like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast…one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”
That is certainly true in higher education. The size, diversity and complexity of US higher education are closely monitored, if not always understood, by Canadian observers. The great US research universities are admired, and their successful innovations are quickly noted, adapted and adopted by their Canadian peers. In the context of increasing global competition for international students and faculty, the US system has always been the elephant in the bedroom. The election of Donald Trump suggests a major change in the sleeping arrangements.
In terms of student flows, Canadian universities have often been frustrated at their inability to attract large numbers of US undergraduates. While roughly half of Canada’s international students come from China (34 per cent) and India (14 per cent), only 3 per cent come from the US. Despite being charged international fees, US students can often still pay less to attend a Canadian university with a similar international ranking to a comparable US institution. And a relative decline in the value of the Canadian dollar a few years ago prompted recruiters from several Canadian universities to turn their attentions on the US market.
American doctoral graduates and junior faculty have been far more willing than undergraduates to head north. English-language universities relied heavily on graduates of US universities to staff the post-war expansion of the Canadian system, but the growing sense of Canadian nationalism and independence that emerged in the 1960s provided a foundation for a rapid expansion of graduate education to create a “Canadian” professoriate that would contribute to the nation’s cultural, social and economic development. The expansion of higher education in Quebec was closely tied to a broader series of social and cultural reforms designed to further the province’s unique cultural and social position.
More recently, Canadian universities have tended to view the academic job market as quite international. While Canadian immigration policies require that preference be given to highly qualified Canadians, research universities are frequently in competition for top talent with their US peers. The exchange rate can make salary negotiations challenging, but universities can often offer comparable pay packets, good benefits and secure tenure-stream positions.
After Trump’s election, Canadian policymakers and higher education leaders are watching closely for what might be a shift in student and faculty flows. While there are no national data on undergraduate applications, some university admissions officers have noted double- and even triple-digit increases in applications from the US. At least some of this is clearly a response to increased marketing activity and a growing recognition that these institutions represent a viable international alternative. However, there is also a general sense that, given a Trump presidency, some students may be looking for an educational experience outside the US.
The same is true for at least some university faculty. Within days of the election, some distinguished senior US professors were reaching out to Canadian colleagues or academic administrators signalling an interest in moving north. Every dean I know has received informal queries. There are also anecdotal reports of increasing numbers of American applicants for advertised Canadian academic positions.
It is far too early to know whether these early signals will translate into real change. An increase in US applications might not lead to an increase in US acceptances, and US scholars might lose interest in moving after a period of adjustment to the new political environment.
At the same time, the new environment might create some fascinating policy and marketing possibilities and challenges for Canada. There may be a new cachet to its higher education brand, but it must be marketed carefully to avoid any appearance of opportunism, lest it upset Canada’s largest trading partner. Investing in the hopes of a Trump dividend means promoting Canadian higher education without naming the elephant in the bedroom.