When 163 Syrian refugees arrived in Canada last December, the country’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, told them they were “safe at home now” as he greeted them at Toronto’s international airport.
“Tonight they step off the plane as refugees, but they walk out of this terminal as permanent residents of Canada,” he said.
They were just the first wave of 25,000 Syrians who resettled in the country by the end of February.
For Meric Gertler, president of the University of Toronto, Canada’s commitment to welcome thousands of refugees “stands out as an important symbol” of the country’s “openness and eagerness to attract newcomers”.
This is further strengthened by the country’s target to attract 450,000 international students by 2022, roughly double the numbers in 2011.
He said that this ambition was an opportunity for Canadian universities to attract British and other European students and academics given the UK’s vote to leave the European Union and its tough stance on immigration.
“There’s no question that with the kind of uncertainty that Brexit has triggered and also with the political climate south of the border in the US and the kind of election campaign [there] over the last…months, Canada has certainly emerged as a place of stability, of openness, of inclusiveness,” he said.
Speaking to Times Higher Education before Donald Trump was elected the next president of the US, he added: “I think we’re doing many things right now that will position us as a stark alternative to things that are happening in other countries, including the UK and the US.
“It’s sad to say because I’m a great admirer of the British higher education system. I’m sure that universities there will continue to emphasise all the strengths that have earned them such a strong reputation over many decades and more, but it will be harder for them.”
In July, the Conference Board of Canada thinktank advised universities in the country to “offer research incentives” for top UK academics in order to take advantage of Brexit.
But Professor Gertler said that while he “anticipates” that Canada will attract more scholars from the UK and the US “because of the kinds of social and political changes that have been taking place in those countries”, the University of Toronto is not particularly targeting academics from these countries.
“It is a time of change in our sector,” he continued.
“One gets a sense that it is a particularly interesting moment where Canadian universities have an opportunity to capitalise on some great advantages if we do it intelligently.”
Earlier this year, the Canadian government announced amendments to legislation to relax the citizenship process for international students, repealing a number of changes that were made to the law under the previous Conservative government.
For Professor Gertler, this change is “key” to achieving the government’s 2022 target.
“There’s no question that one of the factors that attract students to study in Canada is the opportunity to stay here after they graduate and build lives and build careers here,” he said.
Another advantage for Canadian universities, he added, is the federal government’s increased investment in research and scientific infrastructure as these funds are being cut in other countries.
In the year since Mr Trudeau became prime minister, the government has promised new money for research councils to fund fundamental research, increased support for students through grants and loans and launched a C$2 billion (£1.2 billion) fund to help universities modernise their campuses.
The infrastructure fund has already enabled the University of Toronto to launch a C$200 million project, partly paid for by the new fund, to renew and refurbish half of its science laboratories, “many of which are about 50 years old”, said Professor Gertler.
He added that the government is also undertaking a review of how it supports fundamental science in the country, which is being led by former Toronto president David Naylor, as well as a separate review on how to advance Canada’s innovation agenda.
These measures follow several years of science and research council funding cuts under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government between 2006 and 2015.
“The big change has been the recognition of the importance of fundamental science and the acknowledgement that it’s best to ensure that scholars have the freedom to follow their curiosity and pursue research projects that can lead to really important breakthroughs, either next week or 50 years from now,” noted Professor Gertler.
“We can’t predict when those great things can happen, but we know it’s important to invest; and this government has signalled its understanding of that.”