Canada’s approach to internationalization has been quite unique, in large part because there has been no meaningful national approach or federal government strategy in this area. Looking at internationalization as a policy area provides an interesting way of illustrating Canada’s highly decentralized higher education system.
Canada is a federation of ten provinces and three territories (see the political map above), and under the Canadian constitution the responsibility for education was assigned to the provinces. Viewing education as a local responsibility is common to most federal systems, but few have maintained such complete local authority over higher education. In Australia the federal government has assumed the central responsibility for higher education, and in Germany there is a complex arrangement of shared responsibility between the central government and the lander. Canada’s approach is even more decentralized than the United States; there has never been a federal department of education or a national higher education act in Canada.
Canada’s federal government has been involved in the higher education sector in a wide range of ways, in fact it was the federal government that provided the financial support for Canada’s expansion from elite to mass higher education following the second World War. However, the federal government’s involvement in the sector was almost immediately contested by the provinces, and in the context of Canada’s constitutional debates and the rise of Quebec nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s, federal support for higher education shifted to a system of unconditional transfers to the provinces. The provinces can use these funds in any way they choose, including choosing to not spend these transfers on postsecondary education. The federal government has assumed a central role in a number of policy sectors that are directly related to universities, such as student financial assistance and research funding, but higher education policy is the responsibility of the provinces.
This arrangement presents some very interesting challenges for the internationalization of Canadian higher education. While higher education is the responsibility of the provinces, foreign policy and international trade are in the hands of the federal government. There are tremendous coordination challenges associated with discussions of international student recruitment, international scholarship agreements, and even the terms and conditions of visas for international students. There is no national strategy for internationalization, and Canada’s national efforts to market or “brand” Canada in the recruitment of international students have been pitiful [e.g., compared to New Zealand]. It is the provinces, rather than the federal government, which have taken major steps towards local internationalization strategies and encouraging student mobility, especially the provinces of Quebec, British Columbia, and, most recently, Ontario. Like all areas of higher education policy, the Canadian approach has been decentralized, fragmented, and largely uncoordinated.
For the most part, internationalization has been left in the hands of individual universities. The absence of a national strategy or approach means that there are few government resources available to support internationalization initiatives, there is virtually no national infrastructure for recruitment or student mobility programming, and there is little coordination among the various federal departments that have some responsibility in this policy area. On the other hand, the absence of national policy in this area has also meant that the universities have had considerable flexibility to determine their own priorities and develop their own initiatives. Unlike their Australian peers, Canadian universities have not been pressured to view international students as a mechanism for revenue generation. There has been considerable space for local discussions of internationalization, including discussions of internationalizing the curriculum, and the place of international student recruitment and development activities within institutional priorities. These local conversations are frequently linked to discussions of inclusive curriculum as institutions respond to the increasing diversity of the Canadian student population.
Canada’s approach to internationalization, therefore, has been highly decentralized. Several Canadian provinces have developed student mobility programs, and most Canadian universities have developed institutional strategies and approaches for internationalization, but there is no evidence to suggest that Canada is on the way to having something approaching a national strategy or major federal government supported initiatives or program in this important area.