Bring in the foreign legion

November 11, 2005

Philip Fine reports on how two universities are making their mark in the competitive market for international staff and students

Multicultural Montreal and Vancouver are luring academics looking for an experience working in Canada. Both have world-class universities - and the presence of internationally recruited staff makes these institutions even more diverse.

Montreal's majority francophone population and its many established ethnic groups, and Vancouver's large Chinese and Japanese communities, have helped to establish links to the Francophonie, the Pacific Rim and beyond. The heads of two universities with an international profile in those cities, Heather Munroe-Blum, president of McGill University in Montreal, and Martha Piper, her counterpart at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, have developed strategies for meeting the challenges of the increasingly competitive world market for staff and students.

"In the past ten years there has been a sea change [in the search for scholarly talent]," says Munroe-Blum. "It's never been as fierce. There's not a continent that is not engaged in it."

McGill, one of Montreal's cluster of six higher education institutions, has recruited 589 professors since 2000, one third of its tenure-track contingent. McGill's success is due partly to its decision to recruit international academics solely via the Canada Research Chairs scheme. This five-year-old federal initiative has provided money and some prestige for 1,500 five and seven-year research positions. McGill has 109 such chairs in a range of disciplines. It has also provided the university with another tool to assure researchers of support for their work.

"People attracted to research are not greedy. You usually have a person who considers whether or not there is an environment that will support his or her talent," says Munroe-Blum, whose university's recruitment abilities have been augmented by the C$11 billion (£5.4 billion) that the federal Government has invested in university research in the past eight years.

UBC is a highly diverse institution. "More than 50 per cent of our (Canadian) students speak a language other than English in the home," Piper says.

It has achieved success in the guise of a phenomenal rise in its number of international undergraduate student enrolments. In 1996, the Vancouver-based university had 450 international students enrolled on courses, representing 2.5 per cent of its student body. This year, the number is 2,558, up to 9 per cent, with the university hoping to reach 15 per cent by 2015.

The most significant growth has come from China and the US. In 1996, there were 21 students from China. This year there are 668. In the same period, the number of US students at UBC increased from 29 to 604.

Expansion has been achieved through a strategy that has seen the university's team of recruitment officers spending the equivalent of 650 days a year on the road visiting high schools from Miami to Singapore. It has also come from an innovative approach to strengthening overseas links by building dorms in partnership with specific foreign universities. In this way, UBC has enhanced its profile in Mexico, South Korea and Japan. It is currently in talks with a European university over a similar development. UBC has also opened a Hong Kong office. With its focus on the Pacific region, UBC philosophy, Piper says, is to partner key institutions rather than "plopping down a campus". "We want to respect what's already there," she adds.

Another UBC innovation is a revenue-sharing scheme that gives faculties 56 per cent of all international student fees. The university was given permission by the Government of the province of British Columbia to charge international undergraduates the full cost of their education. Some 6.7 per cent of the C$16,620 annual fee will go into a financial-aid fund. UBC has provided an average of C$25,000 a year to those qualifying for assistance.

McGill charges international students C$12,000-C$15,000 a year for undergraduate programmes. Students from the Francophonie, however, pay less than C$2,000 a year.

Munroe-Blum says universities outside of Quebec have more latitude to make arrangements with their provincial governments. Eventually, she hopes to raise fees by between 5 and 7 per cent and set aside 20 per cent of the fee revenue for student aid.
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