Our choice: Spend the money or lose the brightest

Posted on December 15, 2010 in Education Debates

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TheGlobeandMail.com – news/opinions/opinion
Published Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010.   Clifford Orwin

Each of us has his own war. My latest has been in the trenches of graduate student recruitment. Now there’s a pretty genteel conflict, you’d think. Actually, it’s a jungle out there.

First you identify the best available applicants, both Canadian and international. Then you wrestle them from the grip of the other leading programs trying to recruit them. Harvard and Princeton are just as interested in the best Canadian students as we are, not because they’re Canadian – what’s that to them? – but because they’re the best. Naturally, these programs lust just as hotly after the top international students. They’d gladly strip us of all our best prospects, Canadian or foreign, and they’ll pay top scholarship dollar to do so.

Support for foreign graduate students is controversial in Canada. It’s primarily a provincial question, so there’s wide variation in both the kind and the level of the funding available. British Columbia, for example, is quite generous, while Alberta is resolutely stingy. Ontario’s recent announcement of a plan to lure 75 of the world’s best students deeply miffed both opposition parties. They suggested the money would be better spent on outstanding Ontario students. To which I’d reply: Okay, which of these will you spend it on – those who’ll be studying at Harvard, or those who’ll be studying at Princeton?

Attracting the best foreign students to Canada isn’t a luxury we can no longer afford. It’s an ever more pressing necessity. Either we spend the money to do it or we’ll lose (possibly forever) the very best Canadian students.

Where graduate students study, they make friends, make contacts, marry and often stay. That’s why accepting strong foreign students is immigration policy at its best. And it’s why eschewing them – thus also deterring strong Canadian ones from pursuing their graduate studies here – is emigration policy at its worst.

Other things being equal, many outstanding Canadians would be glad to stay here for their graduate training. “Other things being equal” includes, however, the chance to work beside the best foreign students. They know that most of what you learn in graduate school is thanks to your fellow students. They’ll go wherever they expect to find a global elite of those students. The very last thing they want is a sheltered workshop for Canadians. “Diversity” isn’t the issue – excellence is. None but the best will lure the best.

And this rebounds on undergraduate education because, as class sizes soar, that education is ever more in the hands of graduate teaching assistants. Their quality can be no higher than that of the pool from which they’re drawn.

As things stand in Ontario, there’s little provincial support for international students. The province pays us a subvention for every Canadian doctoral student but nothing for an international one. For this and other structural reasons, it costs a university far more to carry an international student than a Canadian one. In hard times, it becomes increasingly infeasible to do so. So we slash admissions of international students, conceding to universities elsewhere many for whom we’d have previously competed. We do so knowing that, if this continues for even a few more years, we’ll slip into parochialism. Soon the best foreign students won’t bother to apply – and neither will the best Canadian ones.

If worst comes to worst, I’ll have to figure out how to pitch the new situation to an outstanding Canadian prospect. How would this sound? “Hey, we’re a Canadian public university, so we try to spend our money mostly on Canadian students. Join us! You won’t find annoying foreigners here, the ones as smart or even smarter than you are. They’re off at Harvard and Princeton. And, yes, that’s also where you’ll find the best Canadians like yourself. But don’t let that stop you from choosing us. We’ll be so grateful if you do. And your fellow students will be nice people, nice Canadian people.”

Did that fall flat?

Clifford Orwin is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and a distinguished visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

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