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Book review / International education as public policy in Canada

Book review / International education as public policy in Canada

Merli Tamtik, Roopa Desai Trilokekar, and Glen A. Jones (Editors)
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020; 504 pp;
ISBN: 978-0-22800-176-8.

By Michael Dudley

Nobody who has taught or worked at a Canadian university over the past 10-20 years can have failed to notice that the composition of the student body at most universities has become increasingly diverse, with students originating from all over the world. What may be less well-recognized is the incredibly complex, interconnected, and often competing array of actors working to bring this about through what is known as International Education (IE) policy, from the federal government to provinces to university administrations themselves, as well as a number of special interest groups. In the groundbreaking new book International Education as Public Policy in Canada, contributors from across the country explore the dimensions and implications of this rich and ever-shifting policy environment.

The reader swiftly learns from this fascinating and valuable collection that the processes involved in attracting and retaining international students turn out to be not just matters of administration and pedagogy but are also bound up in a host of other factors — political, economic, institutional and ideological. Most significantly for the purposes of this book is that Canada’s federal system of government — in which international relations and economic development may be directed by Ottawa, but education is vested as a provincial responsibility — brings with it a host of complications. As such, the book is as much about intergovernmental relations as it is about education.

Helping the reader make sense of the evolution of Canada’s IE policy are editors Merli Tamtik, Roopa Desai Trilokekar and Glen A. Jones. Together they represent formidable expertise in this subject: Tamtik is an Assistant Professor of Educational Administration, Foundations & Psychology at the University of Manitoba and has authored numerous book chapters and scholarly articles on international education. Trilokekar is Associate Professor of Post-Secondary Education in the Faculty of Education at York University and previously co-edited the books, Making Policy in Turbulent Times: Challenges and Prospects for Higher Education (2013) and 2009’s Canada’s Universities Go Global, which she co-edited with present collaborator Glen A. Jones. For his part, Jones is the Professor of Higher Education and Dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto, and has co-authored a number of significant relevant books, including Governing Higher Education: National Perspectives on Institutional Governance (2002) and 2015’s Governance of Higher Education: Global Perspectives, Theories and Practices. The editors also contribute chapters to the book.

The timing of this publication may be seen as both unfortunate yet significant. A major underlying theme of the book is that Canada lacks a coordinated federal international education strategy; however, as it was going to press Ottawa released its IE strategy for 2019-2024 entitled Building on Success, which as a result was not able to be included in the authors’ deliberations. As well, it is difficult not to recognize that the book’s release eight months into a global pandemic that stranded international students, shut down air travel and raised doubts about the economic viability of international study means that it speaks to conditions of a pre-pandemic world which may no longer obtain.

To frame our understanding of this multidimensional and highly complex topic, the book’s contributors all adopt a common theoretical framework of multilevel governance (or MLG), which enables analysis of policy areas involving overlapping jurisdictions and not infrequent organizational changes depending on the priorities of succeeding governments. Section One examines IE at the federal level and within the context of Canadian federalism, involving various agencies, ministries and departments (e.g., education, foreign relations, finance, trade and immigration) with corresponding focus on these policy areas. Section Two — the largest portion of the book — presents case studies of IE policy and strategy (mostly concerning post-secondary but with some attention to K-12) for each province and territory, with the exception of the Northwest Territories and Yukon. Section Three then considers various actors, themes and discourses in IE. The book concludes with an excellent summary by the editors.

A major theme in IE in Canada’s federal system identified by the editors and contributors is that, historically lacking a coordinated federal strategy and dependent on the priorities, resource and capabilities of provincial governments, institutions of higher education are caught between them, with problematic consequences for students and scientific research alike: Ambitious provincial targets for attracting international students may be hampered by incommensurate and constantly shifting immigration policies and regulations at the federal level regarding student visa approval, while the lack of coordination results in a diminished focus on actually retaining and employing international students within Canada once they graduate. Furthermore, so-called “Big Science” cross-national studies often run into conflicting priorities between provincial governments unwilling to compromise around national priorities, making Canada a less than ideal partner.

Particularly illuminating is how the book reveals the startlingly varied patchwork of policy settings across the provinces: Quebec’s approach to IE has de facto been that of a sovereign nation, engaging since 1965 on international partnerships with other countries, while Newfoundland and Labrador has lacked the capacity for any departmental involvement at all, essentially leaving the promotion of IE up to Memorial University.

Not content to merely describe policy contexts, the book also delves quite a bit into problematizing the ideological underpinnings of IE, with some of the contributors arguing that the neoliberal assumptions on the part of both jurisdictions and post-secondary institutions result in education (and international students themselves) being viewed as means to ends in terms of revenue generation, economic growth and international competitiveness. In the context of Canada’s low internal birth rates, international students are also viewed as a source of “ideal” immigrants and, as such, key to the country’s future prosperity. Given its primacy in so many areas, it’s all the more surprising that international education has not until the 2019 release of the Building on Success strategy been subject to greater federal coordination. As it stands to date, however, post-secondary institutions have become unofficial arms of the federal government in effecting immigration policy objectives.

International Education as Public Policy in Canada is an excellent and overdue assessment of a key (and little-understood) driver of Canada’s education, immigration and economic policies. It should be of great interest not only to policymakers at the federal and provincial levels of government but to administrators and faculty members alike. Its publication may have come at something of a crossroads in terms of educational policy-making, fraught as it is by the global pandemic; yet by so thoroughly contextualizing, problematizing and interconnecting the nature of IE as a multi-actor, multi-sector, and multi-level enterprise, it also provides something of a road map for consolidating and strengthening Canada’s approach to international education in a post-pandemic world.

Michael Dudley is a librarian at the University of Winnipeg.


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