What internationalization means to three higher ed leaders

Mention the word “internationalization” to Canadian higher ed professionals and many will immediately think of international student recruitment. Others might think of the benefits that having more international students on campus can provide to campus culture and diversity, while others still might think about the need to create more study abroad opportunities for domestic Canadian students. Working in tandem with these significant aspects of internationalization, though, are the global collaborations that Canada’s forward-thinking institutions are engaging in with partners around the world.

To look deeper into this crucial aspect of internationalization, we caught up with McMaster University President Patrick Deane, who has made a priority of reaching across borders and promoting international partnerships during his time at McMaster.

“When I first arrived at Mac, we didn’t have a formal international strategy and hadn’t thought deliberately about how we wanted to position the university in an international context,” says Deane. “Yes, we had a desire to have a high place in global university rankings. But beyond that, we needed to ask what it meant to truly be an international university. The models we had available to us were all connected to revenue generation, like international student recruitment. But once we started thinking about internationalization in a more comprehensive way, that’s when we started building more multilateral international partnerships.”

Deane’s comments speak directly to the issues he’ll discuss as a presenter at the upcoming Reaching Across Borders, Building a Better World  this November 5-7 in Montreal. Hosted by Academics Without Borders, the event will gather experts from around the world to explore the transformative role that academia has to play in the economic and social well-being of all the world’s citizens.

Throughout this work in international partnerships, Deane notes that it is crucial for Canadian schools not to fall into the trap of paternalism, where one institution narrowly sees itself as the “giver” of knowledge and sees its international partners as passive “receivers.” “If you want your institution to be a global force for discovery and innovation,” says Deane, “you need to approach these partnerships with a sense of mutual exchange and co-operation, and be open to the ways that they can benefit you and your institution.”

Deane notes that another continuing challenge is for Canadian institutions to resist approaching global partnerships exclusively through either altruistic or economic lenses. “On the one hand, you’ll have people who say that this kind of work is a moral obligation, and there’s truth to that,” says Deane, “but seeing this work only in those terms will create that problem I mentioned earlier, where the institution sees itself as a mere giver of knowledge. On the other hand, you have people who want to measure the impact of these projects in exclusively economic terms, asking only about how they benefit the Canadian institution and its students. You need to find that third way of seeing to uncover all the different types of value these projects can create for both parties.”

Sheldon Levy, CEO of NEXT Canada, agrees that post-secondary institutions in Canada need to reimagine the partnerships with global partners in order to ensure maximum benefit to both. “If you took away the names of the universities, most of the existing partnerships look the same,” says Levy, insofar as these partnerships tend to be traditional student and/or faculty exchanges. During his time as President of Ryerson University, though, Levy wanted to see his school pursue different kinds of partnerships. It was this urge that led him to found Ryerson Futures Inc., a business accelerator that has taken the success of Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone student entrepreneur incubator and made it a success on the international stage. With partnerships based in countries such as Vietnam and India, Ryerson Futures represents the kind of new, maximum-value partnership work that Levy envisions for Canadian post-secondary education, and which he will expand on as a featured speaker at Reaching Across Borders, Building a Better World.

“When it comes to any partnership, my rule of thumb is Tell me who the partner is, and I’ll tell you if I’m interested,” says Levy. “In the case of India, Ryerson Futures partnered with the Bombay Stock Exchange in Mumbai, creating opportunities for young entrepreneurs from both Canada and India that they never would have had otherwise. This project also established a permanent Ryerson presence in Mumbai, which has grown the reputation of not only Ryerson University, but all of Canada.”

“One of Canada’s biggest needs right now is to have greater trade ties with the rest of the world beyond the US,” adds Levy. “We need much closer relationships with countries and cultures so that when we create these programs, we’re creating opportunities for learning on both sides of the partnership.”

Levy’s success in creating international partnerships speaks to another core aspect of internationalization in Canada’s post-secondary sector, which is how Canada’s universities can ensure that international students coming to Canada have the best opportunity to succeed. This is where partners like Navitas use the power of public-private partnerships to help international students gain the skills and knowledge they need to have the best chance at success in Canadian PSE.

“At the core, we seek to transform lives through access to quality education,” says Darcy Rollins, College Director and Principal at International College of Manitoba, a Navitas organization that has partnered with the University of Manitoba to offer first-year bridging programs to international students. “Students who come to us are often beginning higher education from behind the starting line, compared to domestic students,” notes Rollins. “What we want is for our international students to do as well or better than those who have direct entry.”

Like McMaster President Patrick Deane and NEXT Canada CEO Sheldon Levy, Navitas has also thrown its support behind Reaching Across Borders, Building a Better World, joining the event as a Founding Partner. Rollins notes that whether it is an institution pursuing cross-border collaborations or supporting international students in Canada, the overall goals of internationalization remain interconnected.

“It’s really a question of circulation,” says Rollins. “Cross-border projects are focused on developing in-country capacity, while we wish to develop the talent of students who come to us from those countries to learn in Canada. We help international students get access to education they might not otherwise have. Then you see many of these students going back home after graduation to provide skills and expertise and pass on knowledge.”

When asked about how he feels toward the current climate of international mobility, Rollins says that he remains optimistic. “There are attitudes in current thinking that are more closed than they used to be. It’s easy to get preoccupied by the bad news. But if you look at the global arc of development over the past twenty years – levels of education and other indicators, poverty alleviation, access to quality education – the story of humanity is unfailingly one of great improvement. It is big, messy, and changing fast. But I’m bullish because the indicators point to growing access to education, equity and rights, and poverty reduction and a better world.”


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