Ontario wins by attracting the best international students

TheStar.com – Opinion/EditorialOpinion
Published On Tue Nov 16 2010.    Feridun Hamdullahpur, President and Vice-Chancellor, University of Waterloo

On Nov. 4, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty announced a new Trillium Scholarship program designed to attract the world’s best graduate students to pursue doctoral studies in Ontario. It was a brilliant move and should be applauded by all.

These 75 scholarships — each one providing $40,000 a year for up to four years, to be paid for by both the government and the universities — are substantial enough to attract really top talent to Canada.

It’s been asked why we should spend so much money on international students when our home-grown talent could use more help. But in fact there’s no question of taking support away from domestic students for this purpose. We are already cultivating and supporting our own students with programs such as the Ontario Graduate Scholarships; other programs, such as the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships, are available at the federal level.

A few years ago the Ontario government began more strongly supporting graduate education in the province, clearly seeing how important those graduate students — both domestic and foreign — are to our prosperity.

The key is knowledge — the only truly sustainable element in our world. Without knowledge, and especially without new, expanding, and creative knowledge, there can be no advances in innovation, nor in what follows from innovation: a vigorous economy and an improved quality of life. To nurture and increase knowledge, as the government clearly saw, graduate students are crucial.

But where are they to come from? For years, Canada has been lagging behind other countries in enrolling domestic PhD students. We have also been lagging in attracting international grad students.

A large part of the problem has been lack of sufficient funding. There is intense competition worldwide for the best students. For years we envied our colleagues in other countries who had the funding to attract very talented students, while we did not. The Trillium Scholarships promise to change that picture for the better by adding an international dimension.

It’s vitally important for Ontario and Canada to be active players in the global marketplace. Wherever we live — in Waterloo, Toronto or elsewhere — everything we teach, learn and discover is of a global nature. Knowledge is an international currency.

To help us become fully engaged global players, we must increase the internationalization of our universities. These new scholarships will give us a strong push along that path.

Too expensive, some say. We are all taxpayers, and nobody wants to see our money spent irresponsibly. But there is nothing irresponsible about supporting this investment in our future. All of us, and our children and grandchildren, will reap the benefits.

Some of the benefits are immediate and obvious. It’s been noted that international students directly contribute $1 billion annually to Canada’s economy. That substantial economic contribution is just one aspect of their value to this country and province. Their presence in our universities broadens the education and enriches the cultural understanding of Canadian-born young people. International graduate students bolster the brainpower of existing research enterprises.

Whether they decide to stay in Canada and found their own research labs and knowledge-based businesses here, or whether they do so in their home countries, they will be making a global contribution. It’s important for Canada to establish long-term relationships with these talented people. The links they form here will increase the opportunities for Canada and Ontario to create partnerships with universities, businesses or industries in other countries.

This is a very ambitious vision, our determination to be so richly and productively connected to the rest of the world. Will these 75 scholarships be the only conduit for that vision? Certainly not. But they are a welcome addition to already established initiatives, including scholarship programs and government measures to make it easier for international students to stay in Canada.

The Trillium Scholarships are sending a message to the world that Ontario is serious: that we are committed to achieving this global ambition. The importance of that message is worth far more than what will be spent on these scholarships. The investment is well worth it.

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