Canadian universities make a play for top international talent

Canada is using its relative economic strength to attract world-class students, scientists and researchers, says Amit Chakma

July 22, 2010

The announcement that world-renowned neuroscientist Adrian Owen was moving with most of his research team from the University of Cambridge to the University of Western Ontario in Canada shocked some of the British media. We should expect more such surprises from Canadian universities.

In many ways, what is happening in higher education institutions mirrors what is occurring in the global economy. While Western nations, battered by the global economic crisis of 2008, struggle to get back on their feet, the economies of Asia and China in particular are racing ahead. Canada, however, is proving to be something of an anomaly in the West. And it's continuing to use its relative economic strength to shift from being a nation dependent primarily on natural resources to building a globally competitive knowledge economy.

Canada entered the recent recession in a somewhat stronger position than its G7 peers, in large part because it dealt with its budget deficits in the mid-1990s. Thanks to its regulatory regime, no Canadian banks failed and no government subsidy was needed to prop up their balance sheets. As a result, the Canadian economy is emerging from the recession faster and relatively stronger than other countries'.

The Canadian economy has traditionally relied on its natural reserves and basic manufacturing. Since the mid-1990s, however, the country has been making systematic investments in building its knowledge economy. Canada today boasts a 48 per cent post-secondary attainment rate, the highest among the countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. In Ontario, Canada's most populous province, 62 per cent of residents have attended higher education and the provincial government has aggressive plans to increase this number to 70 per cent over the next five years.

Ontario has plans to accommodate 20,000 more university students in the next year alone, and that's on top of the 120,000 spots created since 2003. In addition, Ontario intends to increase its international student enrolment by 50 per cent over the next five years.

Ontario is not alone in pursuing an aggressive internationalisation agenda. Other Canadian provinces have similar programmes and goals. An ageing population means that Canada must attract immigrants, and both federal and provincial governments are responding to the challenge with incentives that include enabling international students to fast-track the process to Canadian citizenship. Over the past few decades, Canada has emerged as a multicultural mosaic with Canadians having strong ties to nearly all other countries. The city of Toronto is recognised as one of the most multicultural cities in the world.

In addition to expanding higher education, Canada has also invested in its research infrastructure - 0.7 per cent of its gross domestic product is spent on higher education research and development through its post-secondary institutions. This places Canada atop the G7 in this category and second only to Sweden in the OECD. In addition to supporting university research through its three granting councils with total budgets of over C$2.7 billion (£1.72 billion), Canada has also created some unique programmes to support research and development.

The Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) was created to support large research infrastructures in Canadian universities. The CFI has committed C$5.3 billion in support of 6,800 projects at 130 research institutions since its inception. The Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships programme, designed to attract and retain world-class PhD students, offers scholarships of C$50,000 a year to those undertaking doctoral study at Canadian universities. Just recently, Canada announced the establishment of 140 postdoctoral fellowships valued at C$70,000 a year.

To reverse the brain drain Canada had been encountering, in 2000, the federal government established 2,000 Canada Research Chairs allocated to universities across the country as part of its innovation agenda. These chairs have enabled Canadian universities to retain their best scholars and researchers while recruiting top international talent. A new Canada Excellence Research Chair programme was created in 2009, resulting in the recruitment of 19 top scientists to Canada from around the world, including four from prestigious UK schools. It was through this programme that the University of Western Ontario recruited Dr Owen and his team.

Canadians are not naive about the challenges we face. Canada is a young nation with a small population relative to its geographical size. But it is competing on the global stage, and Canadian universities will continue to have a growing influence on research and discoveries that will have impacts around the world.

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