Early research on the internationalization of higher education in the Global North was notoriously undertheorized and instrumental. However, over the past decade, the field has taken a critical turn. Today, a growing number of scholars, practitioners, and students are recognizing internationalization’s colonial, Eurocentric logics and its tendency to reproduce, if not exacerbate, uneven global power relations. Many well-intentioned institutional activities promoted under the seemingly benevolent guise of “development” – or even “reciprocity” – are now being scrutinized for extractive or paternalistic motivations.
In Canada, nowhere is this tension more public than in the recruitment of international students. For 20 years, an enmeshed yet largely uncoordinated education-immigration policy nexus, or edugration, has been increasingly celebrated as a triple-win:
- Students gain an internationally valuable education and desirable citizenship;
- Higher education institutions gain much-needed revenue, enrolment, teaching/research assistants, and diversity; and
- Canada gains human capital, labour, tax revenue, population growth, and soft power.
The higher education sector has become more and more reliant on international students for both enrolment growth and tuition fees. Early warnings about the system’s risks went largely unheeded, and recent media pieces have elevated edugration’s negative impacts on individual international students and their families to the level of mainstream discourse.
To fully understand such impacts, it is important to consider how Canada’s immigrant selection process has shifted since the introduction of edugration. In 2016, the president of Universities Canada described Canadian universities “as the Pier 21 of the 21st century.” However, Canada does not actually welcome international students directly into Canadian nationhood as permanent residents. Instead, it conditionally accepts them as temporary residents who have been pre-sorted, thanks to filters such as higher education admission criteria and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada’s proof of funds requirement.
These students then pay about three times more in tuition than that of their domestic counterparts, contribute disproportionately to higher education’s academic labour needs as graduate teaching and research assistants, and more generally “have a greater impact on Canada’s economy than exports of auto parts, lumber or aircraft,” according to the international education strategy put out by Global Affairs Canada in 2019. After graduation, those wishing to remain in Canada must navigate a multi-step, sink-or-swim econometric immigration system in which permanent residency becomes a possibility only after proving one’s economic worthiness. As a result, international graduates endure extended periods of legal precarity as they compete in Canada’s documented discriminatory and racist labour market with no guarantees of success. The level of pressure and uncertainty is intense, especially for those from countries with relatively lower per capita GDPs who are more likely to transition to permanent residency.
Things need to change, but how?
As the online comments section following any article about international students makes abundantly clear, many Canadians appear unfazed by the downsides of edugration borne by non-Canadians. To some extent, this is understandable. The Canada-first, state-centric rallying call is ubiquitous in the immigration and, to a lesser extent, higher education arenas. For those who have long enjoyed the entitlements of Global North citizenship acquired solely through a “birthright lottery,” edugration’s high-risk, high-reward gamble can be hard to understand.
Yet continuing to position edugration as a triple-win downplays the ways a relentless focus on individualist and nationalist economic utility accelerates higher education’s marketization and corporatization. It overlooks the implications of higher education institutions becoming immigration selection, surveillance, and settlement actors. And, more broadly, it ignores the system’s dependence on anglophone, Western supremacy which, ultimately, drives the global desirability of Canadian education and permanent residency in the first place.
While COVID-19’s disruptive and highly uneven impacts made the complexities of Canada’s dependence on international student mobility crystal clear, more ethical models have been slow to materialize. The challenge is that internationalization’s problematic logics are deeply ingrained and not easily disrupted, even amongst those of us who take a critical stance. They are tied not only to the financial viability of our sector and the national economic system more broadly, but also to our own careers, sense of purpose, and outlook on the world.
To develop new models will require a high level of self-reflexivity and vulnerability. There are tools to support us like HEADS UP, which guides us through difficult questions about our hegemonic practices, ethnocentric projections, ahistorical thinking patterns, depoliticized orientations, self-serving motivations, uncomplicated solutions, and paternalistic investments. Another example is a letter to prospective immigrants to what is known as Canada, which can help both practitioners and international students think about the intersection of settler-colonialism and edugration. However, engaging with these tools requires stamina, as they necessarily avoid prescriptive, one-size-fits-all answers.
Those of us who study and work in higher education and student affairs are in a unique position due to our proximity to, and complicity in, the practice of what we critique. As a result, we have the ability and responsibility to inform its structure. Yet we also tend to have a deep affective investment in the empty promises of internationalization – some of which we need to let go.
This column is coordinated through the Internationalization of Student Affairs Community of Practice of the Canadian Association of College & University Student Services (CACUSS). For comments or questions please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.