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Managing Globalization: Education's value in the export column



Daniel Altman International Herald Tribune




Globalization can create tough problems, but it can open up unexpected opportunities, too. Canada is well known as an exporter of oil, wood, small jets and auto parts. Yet thanks to the increasing ease of transport and communication, as well as the desirability of learning English, it is also becoming an exporter of something less tangible: children's education.


Education is an export when foreigners buy it, even on Canadian soil. Though Canadian universities have drawn foreign students for many years, it is only in the past decade - the golden age of globalization if ever there was one - that Canada's elementary and secondary schools have really jumped on the bandwagon. They see an opportunity to expose their students to different cultures, as well as higher enrollments and a nice wad of cash.


The West Vancouver school district in British Columbia has had an international student program since 1982, according to the program's principal, Rod Matheson. But in recent years, the program has taken on a new importance.


"We've had a slight decline in enrollment each year in the past 10 or 15 years," Matheson said. "Rather than having to lay off teachers and close school because of low enrollment, we've added 40 or 50 international students every year."


Canada's birth rate has been falling steadily, from 14 babies per 1,000 people in 1990 to fewer than 11 last year. As a consequence, many public schools are facing lower enrollments and are under pressure to cut programs.


Part of the success story has been the Canadian Education Center Network, a chain of marketing outposts in 17 countries that try to direct students to Canada. The network was started in 1995 with money from Canada's Finance Ministry, but it is now supported by 296 Canadian educational institutions.


"Canada, prior to our establishment, didn't really have a national capacity to get out there and take advantage of the international opportunities that were there," said Gardiner Wilson, the network's director of public policy and research. "As the schools themselves become more experienced, and active and professional in the marketplace, that's resulted in increased numbers of students."


West Vancouver has actively used the network's services, and Matheson has traveled thousands of miles to participate in its education fairs.


Just a few years ago, he recalled, there were about 200 international students, out of 6,500 in the district. Now there are 562, and overall enrollment is roughly the same. Each student pays 14,000 Canadian dollars, or $12,000, for each academic year, but they contribute much more to the local economy. "It's estimated that a student spends an average of 30,000 dollars for their education in Canada, and that covers all their medical insurance and living expenses," Matheson said.


Even an elementary student could do the math: the higher enrollment has meant an increase in revenue of nearly 5 million dollars, and an addition to the economy of almost 11 million dollars.


"We haven't faced those issues that other school districts have had to face with school closures," Matheson said.


According to the Canadian Bureau for International Education, a nonprofit umbrella group, there are about 40,000 international students in Canada's elementary and secondary schools, the equivalent of more than 1 billion dollars in annual exports, with East Asian countries among the biggest clients. Total enrollment of foreign students has been dropping off, a decline that the government attributes to the strengthening of the Canadian dollar. But elementary and secondary pupils have gone against the trend. For example, Canada's consulate in Seoul has issued about 14,000 study permits for each of the past five years. But since 2003, the proportion of children in that total has grown from about a third to 45 percent.


And there could be even more, Matheson said, given the demand from abroad. Five years ago, British Columbia had just half a dozen international student programs; now there are more than 40, representing more than two-thirds of the province's school districts.


Matheson repeatedly mentioned the global aspect of the competition. "The international student market is what we'd call a fledgling industry in Canada," he said.


"The competition that we have is not even with other provinces that have excellent programs. The real competition is with the other players in the market, against the U.S., against the United Kingdom and Australia and New Zealand."