When it comes to attracting talent, Canada brings a lot to the table: a tolerant and stable society, phenomenal natural resources, exquisite varied landscapes and great cities such as Calgary and Montreal.
Indeed, four of The Economist’s Top 20 “most livable” cities in the world are Canadian. [Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Montreal] So it is not surprising that immigration now contributes the bulk of Canada’s population growth.
When it comes to our universities, despite this Canadian penchant for equalization, we’ve come a long way over the last decade. Since the mid-1990s, remarkable investments in our universities have been made by federal and provincial governments alike across a wide variety of political parties: from the Parti Québécois and then the Liberals in Quebec, to the Liberals and then the Conservatives in Ottawa, to the Conservatives …. and then more Conservatives … and then more Conservatives… in Alberta.
The federal government’s creation of the Canada Research Chairs program and the Canada Foundation for Innovation, new support for national granting councils, and stronger provincial support for university research and graduate education, have been a boon, both in attracting gifted international recruits and in retaining our home-grown talent. How? By rewarding the best. By giving the most promising professors and students across universities, the resources they need to reach their goals.
At McGill, these programs have helped fund our strategy: to attract the best in the world – not in every department but in our key areas of distinctive strength and impact. Over the last eight years, we have welcomed 800 new professors and their families to McGill, and over 60 percent of these have been recruited from outside Canada. A big achievement. We boast among the highest proportion of graduate students in Canadian research universities – nearly 25 per cent of our student body. And, the highest percentage of international students.
The distinguished London-based Times Higher Education Supplement-QS World Rankings (THES), which emphasizes the quality and impact of teaching and research, the employability of graduates and the presence of international students and faculty, recently placed 11 Canadian universities in its Top 200 (including the universities of Calgary and Alberta), up from seven in 2006. I am very proud that McGill ranked 12th in the world and was pegged as the top public university in North America. This success is testimony, in part, to the impact of strategic federal and provincial investments.
But our progress, like others in Canada, is fragile and Canada has not yet reached its potential. If we are truly serious about competing in the global race for talent and winning the economic and social benefits that flow from this talent, we need to do better, much better, and do so quickly.
We need more of our universities to be legitimate contenders in the Top 25, or even better, in the Top 10. If California can do it, if New England can do it, we can do it too.
We must promote Canada’s distinctive value and attractiveness to the most talented individuals and organizations in the world. When the top students in Singapore, New York, Lethbridge or Kalamazoo think of where to go to undertake advanced studies, I want them to think “Canada.” And although our numbers have been improving, Canada still lags behind the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia and France, among others, as a preferred destination for foreign students.
The most recent federal budget has exciting new measures to help our universities get ahead in the race. It created 500 highly competitive, distinguished Vanier doctoral awards, open to international students studying in Canada as well as Canadian PhD students and, 20 exceptional new chairs - the Canada Global Excellence Research Chairs. The government also increased funding for the outstanding Gairdner Foundation to help celebrate the world’s best biomedical researchers.
This year, University of Calgary professor Samuel Weiss, who is also a McGill grad, and McGill cancer professor Nahum Sonenberg, both earned the coveted Gairdner International Awards or “baby Nobels,” as they are sometimes dubbed.
It’s simple – talent is what matters and the best minds win. These new investments are good first steps and several provinces have their own complementary programs, Alberta having invested in the Alberta Heritage Fund as long ago as 1976, and Quebec, in its research councils, beginning in the early 1970’s.
We should aim – governments and universities – to make Canada the “go-to place” for domestic and international graduate students. And this requires a strategy and a plan. McGill has always had internationalization as a defining characteristic in this regard. Currently it has one of the highest percentages of full-time foreign students of any university in North America, and the highest percentage of international students in Canada. Approximately 55% of McGill’s 33,000 students come from Quebec (6,000 with French as their first language); 25% come from the rest of Canada, and about 20% from about 150 countries around the globe in this year alone, a unique configuration.
How does McGill draw these students and professors from around the world? There are many ways, but I’ll choose just two – an unwavering focus on strategy to build quality and a great reputation, and a worldwide reach. But in a highly mobile world where other countries have made the strategic decision to invest heavily into creating better and better systems of higher education, we must ensure we don’t lose the talent we are attracting.
We must do something very un-Canadian – we must start bragging. Canada needs to invest in promoting itself as an international leader in research and higher education.
Let’s make Canada known around the world not as the Great White North, but as the Great Bright North – where our real “northern lights” are the cluster of brilliant minds shining across our country.