Opinion: We need to establish Canadian university education as a prestigious brand around the world

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Munir Sheikh is the former Chief Statistician of Canada, Deputy Minister of Labor and Associate Deputy Minister of Finance. He teaches public policy at Carleton University.

Canada has a persistent growth problem. Productivity growth, which underpins rising living standards, is a fraction of what it was in the 1980s and 1990s. It averaged 0.4% per year in Canada over the past five years, continuing a long-term downward trend.

This is despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s plan in 2015 to put Canada on a path of higher economic growth. The Liberals established an advisory council on economic growth that produced its final report more than four years ago. As the government prepares its next budget, it must capitalize on Canada’s comparative advantages.

There is a really important economic advantage that Canada has essentially ignored: the intersection between our university education systems and immigration. The potential synergy between Canadian universities and Canadians’ favorable views on immigration creates an imperative to make low-cost, world-class higher education our international brand.

The Western world is in great need of immigrants to maintain its standard of living. Canadians understand and accept this at a time when many other Western countries are becoming isolationist.

Canada is unique in the world, having moved towards a value system based on the philosophy that people of all races, religions and cultures can truly live together harmoniously and prosperously. Let us broaden the dimension of this beautiful project and strengthen it by linking immigration to university training.

The prestige of a Canadian university education should become that international mark; this would allow us to punch well above our weight. For this, we need public policies aimed at placing at least some of our universities among the top 10 schools in the world. We currently have none in this elite group, which is generally considered to include Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge.

If we establish a Canadian university brand and streamline our immigration system to fund and accelerate the best and brightest students around the world, we would have the best of all worlds: an acceleration in our standard of living, more productivity and citizens with a better understanding of their civic responsibilities.

Global research shows that universities promote higher living standards and economic growth. In Canada, people with a university degree earn significantly more than those without a degree, and this gap is expected to widen further as we become more dependent on technology. The data also shows that the cost of a university education is considerably lower in Canada than in many other countries, particularly the United States and Australia, our two closest competitors for education.

Public funding of universities is a great investment because higher income generates higher tax revenue. Over the course of an individual’s working life, this far exceeds the short-term cost of funding their education. Stronger economic growth that exceeds its own costs? Who said there was no free lunch?

Top universities can also be a hub to meet the needs of the future economy, including the growing shortage of top talent and the need to accelerate innovation in areas such as artificial intelligence, engineering and commercializing new ideas. And we need a comprehensive strategy to produce domestic talent. A talent management strategy cannot be limited to expanding learning in the skilled trades.

Establishing Canadian universities among the best in the world is a daunting challenge and requires at least two major initial steps. First, the provinces, under the leadership of the federal government, should support more university education initiatives for international students and find ways to retain them here. Second, federal and provincial governments should increase their public investment in universities.

A look at Ontario suggests that our largest province needs to reverse its harmful approach to university funding, which has waned over the past decade. Ontario spending per student lowest of all provinces, study by Higher Education Strategy Associates finds. The Council of Ontario Universities says there is a gap of at least $10 billion between government funding and maintenance and repair needs on campuses across the province. Ontario tuition fees for international students are also the highest in the country by far.

Currently, we view international students as a source of funding rather than an investment in Canada’s future. How long can this last if we really want to raise our standard of living?

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