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'The calibre of Indian students is extremely high'

Last updated on: September 20, 2012 17:10 IST

Image: Dr Stephen Toope, President, University of British Columbia
Ajit Jain

Stephen Toope, President, University of British Columbia, reveals why there is a growing need for the Indian government to collaborate with universities abroad, in order to meet the academic needs of talented students.

Recently, Dr Stephen Toope lauded a 122-page report by an expert committee chaired by Dr Amit Chakma, President, University of Western Ontario. The report outlines how Canada can succeed in doubling the number of international students.

"I am pleased with the work done by Chakma and his team to get the government to think more comprehensively about the role of international students in Canada," Toope said.

Read on for excerpts from an interview with the President of the University of British Columbia.

What efforts have you made to enrol students from India and China?

Unlike some other universities, we don't use agents. We have our own extensive network of recruiting called the International Student Initiative. We've expanded that initiative in India, where we recently opened two offices in New Delhi and Bengaluru. Part of the function of these offices is to facilitate enrolment of Indian students to study at our university in Vancouver.

We are now trying to expand the geographic reach of our recruitment. We have focused heavily in the past on China and Korea. We're expanding more in India now. We're offering scholarship opportunities for gifted students.

During the last few years, there has actually been a substantial increase in the number of international students coming to Canada.

In 2008, we had about 178,000 and in 2010, 218,000 and the Chakma report is recommending that we try to double that number up to roughly 450,000 by 2022.

The government had been waiting for the Chakma report before it made its commitments. Some of the recommendations of the report include:

  • Focus on increased marketing for Canada as an education destination
  • More training for Canadian foreign service officers around the world on the country's education offerings and on access points.
  • Setting up a communication system at the national level, which could be an electronic portal for international students to get information about all Canadian universities bundled together.
  • Increased funding from the federal government to bring in international undergraduate students through scholarships.
  • An international mobility programme funded to send Canadian students to other countries.

These are within the power of the federal government, which needs to collaborate with Canadian universities. I really think that we have the capacity to meet the target of doubling the number of international students and in getting more Canadians to have an opportunity to study outside Canada as well.

Is the emphasis on enrolling international students more for the universities and for Canada to add to revenues?

No, it's not the right goal. It is actually beneficial for students to have a diverse student population with a very good proportion of international students.

I have experienced it myself when I taught law. When there are more international students, the kind of conversation that you can have in a classroom changes.

The perspectives are different. There are more challenging discussions. That's the most important reason for us to try to have a diverse international student body in our classrooms. And it benefits every single student in that class.

Not every Canadian student is going to have an opportunity to spend part of her or his academic life outside Canada, but every Canadian student should be in a position to have international students in his or her classroom.

So that's the first and most important point for us -- to bring as many international students to our campuses as possible.

There are academic benefits to Canada having international students. There's an eight billion dollar direct benefit of having international students. The important point for me is that even when international students return to their countries, as most of them do, they have developed relationships, friendships, partnerships, with Canadians.

That, I think, is hugely important for the future of international trade and international collaboration in education, culture and science.

If you have studied in a particular country, you tend to look to it when you're looking for partnerships in business and even in cultural areas.

For Canada, it's important that we have more international students coming so that we develop stronger people to people linkages with countries around the world, particularly with Asian countries, like India and China.

Do you believe there is such awareness amongst Canadian academic institutions?

I believe this awareness is increasing. When I talk to other university presidents across Canada or with colleagues who teach in various programmes, I find there is a strong awareness that it's very exciting to teach in a classroom where there is a diverse student population, including a good number of international students.

What about inordinate delays in international students getting Canadian visas?

There has been some improvement there. This was an issue that we at the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada raised with the federal government three or four years ago.

Delhi was one place where there were real logjams in terms of visa access. Now the federal government has invested resources in Delhi and other key places to facilitate quicker and more efficient processing of student visas. Now we have fewer examples of students who don't get to our university because they can't get their visas than we saw five years ago.

The Chakma report emphasises the importance of prompt access to appropriate visa programmes.

How many international students do you have at the University of British Columbia?

We have about 7,500 international students out of 50,000 students. And our goal is to increase their number from the existing 12 per cent to 15 to 20 per cent. We are currently discussing this with our board and senate.

What is the calibre of Indian and Chinese students studying at your campus?

The calibre of Indian students is extremely high. We would like to have more students from India because we're very impressed with the type of students who come here. We've got a number of programmes to try to encourage students to explore the opportunities.

We have a programme called Global Link, which tries to take some top students from the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management and bring them in. But we're also looking at very strong undergraduates.

I have met India's Human Resources Development Minister Kapil Sibal thrice. So, I know India is trying hard to expand its higher education sector. It's very expensive to do that and there's so much need.

For the foreseeable future, I don't think India will be able to offer spaces at outstanding institutions for all the talented students because there are just so many of them.

We are hopeful that we will attract some of these Indian students to the UBC.

India has decided to open several new universities.

I talked with Mr Sibal about that and I know they're very dedicated in trying to accomplish that task. But they can't do that in one or five years. That's going to take decades.

In the meantime, I know that India is looking for opportunities for some of its outstanding students to be trained in other countries, assuming that a lot of those students go home to India and serve the public there.

Did Minister Sibal share some thoughts in this regard?

Yes, he did. He needs to look at different ways of trying to provide access to education to the millions of students. Part of it will be by expanding the Indian system, but part of it will be by providing opportunities for Indians to study outside the country, assuming that they will then come home.

Have you signed any memoranda of understanding with Indian schools?

We have very strong, comprehensive MoUs with the University of Delhi, the National Institute for Mental Health in Bengaluru and a nursing school in Punjab. These MoUs are for students' mobility and also for research collaboration.

And as part of the agreement with Delhi University, we will bring over some of their younger faculty members to perhaps get an advanced degree. They will also have the opportunity to work with some of our professors in laboratories etc.

Do many of these international students opt to stay in Canada after they finish their studies?

It is a little early to tell, because the rule allowing these international students to stay here for three years after the completion of their degree is a fairly new one. So I would want to give us a little more time to see what the numbers really look like.

But what I'm sensing is that there are quite a number of students who are interested in staying for some time in Canada to get experience. Most Indian and Chinese students want to return home because they see such dramatic opportunities arising in their own countries, thanks to the economic growth over the last few years.

India Abroad