by Our National Correspondent
Dr. Alaa Abd-El-Aziz, President and Vice-Chancellor, University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI) was appointed Chair of the Association of Atlantic Universities (AAU) earlier this month. New Canadian Media conducted an interview with him by e-mail.
Q: You obviously bring a strong international outlook to the new position given your own early background and education in Egypt. How do you think your immigrant background will help as Chair of the Association of Atlantic Universities (AAU)?
A: Together the presidents of Atlantic Canadian universities share a diverse range of experience and we are stronger because of it. Having been an international student that immigrated to Canada, I would not claim to understand the needs and hopes of all international students. Everyone’s experience is unique, but that does not prevent me from drawing on my experience when I approach an issue.
I believe the key to success for both international and Canadian students stems from good relationships. At the University of Prince Edward Island, we strive to keep this at the core of everything we do, and it is emphasized during new student orientation and mental health and well-being initiatives. Interactions with friends, family, professors, staff, employers, and strangers affect our day-to-day lives, and building good relationships with these people can make all the difference.
International students will almost always have smaller networks of people in their lives so providing those services and opportunities to build those relationships when they come to Canada is key.
Q: As you say in your news release, foreign students are a particular focus. How do you think the current population of international students is fitting into Atlantic campuses? Are they contributing to the overall campus experience or do they tend to keep to themselves?
A: The culture of Atlantic Canadian universities is one in which the larger community and the campus are integral to one another. The cultural and social influences of students and their communities impact each other positively and benefit the overall experiences and success of everyone.
International students play a very important role on Canadian campuses as they are ambassadors for their respective countries. In Atlantic Canada, we strongly believe that integrating our international students into our campus communities not only benefits international students, but also Atlantic Canadian students.
Q: What does your early experience in Canada as a student/researcher tell you about what more Canada – particularly the Atlantic universities – can do to make foreign students feel more welcome? What advice do you provide to international students that you run into?
A: Canada has been, and is, welcoming to students of all cultures, and international students arrive in Canada with great appreciation for our country and its diversity. Having been an international student myself, I can say that there were many Canadians who made me feel at home by demonstrating support, kindness, and sincerity.
I personally have worked with and supervised dozens of international students and I tell them all, “In Canada you have the opportunity to be yourself, talk about your culture, interact with your community, and embrace Canadian values while enriching them with those of your own home.” This is advice that can truly help to make the best of an international student’s experience while studying in Canada.
Q: In your view, should international students have a pathway to Canadian citizenship? Would that help the Atlantic region address its demographic challenges?
A: When I think of immigration and encouraging our international students to stay and pursue citizenship, I recognize the many benefits that would have for our region. As our governments are actively working to attract talent and youth to help build our economy and society, an obvious group of people to attract would be the international students who are currently studying, researching, and honing their skills here in Atlantic Canada. In addition, I have to think about it from the point of view that even if our international students decide to return to their home country, they will forever be linked to Atlantic Canada. This too will have positive results, because if our international students are looking for opportunities to build bridges globally, there is a good chance that their first thought will be Atlantic Canada.
Q: Your time in Canada appears to have taken you to institutions from coast-to-coast. Can you please share with our readers your views on Canadian multiculturalism?
Having arrived as an international student and lived in Canada for over 30 years, I have seen many examples of how Canadians welcome, appreciate, and support the benefits of multiculturalism. We consist of people from all over the world, and yet we are probably one of the best examples of embracing differences. This makes us unique as we pour an incredibly strong foundation that embraces and respects the values of everyone.
by Peter Halpin
Canada’s labour market may not be showing much demand for bakers or tailors or candlestick makers, according to the CIBC report The Haves and Have Nots of Canada’s Labour Market. But, market demand remains strong for university graduates.
Indeed, university education is preferred if not essential for most of the 25 most in‐demand professions listed in the CIBC report. Skills shortages exist in numerous professions that require university education -- from engineering, architecture and auditing, to optometry, counselling and various health professions.
The CIBC report welcomes government proposals to admit 53,000 to 55,000 new Canadians this year to help meet the national skills shortage. At the same time, CIBC warns that this initiative is “simply not big enough to turn things around.”
Retaining skilled professionals
How can Atlantic Canada attract and retain skilled professionals inside what is a highly competitive market for their services?
First, we could start by looking at the thousands of international students already enrolled at Canada’s East Coast universities. New research commissioned by the Association of Atlantic Universities (AAU) shows that our international students are willing and able to help fill the region’s skills gap.
Indeed, the survey of this student cohort reveals that a majority of international students would consider staying in Canada after they graduate. Here are a few highlights from the survey, which was conducted by Corporate Research Associates:
• 33% of respondents ranked a “desire to live in Canada after graduation” as the single most important reason for their decision to attend a Canadian university.
• 76% of respondents were interested in applying for permanent residency through the federal government’s Canadian Experience Class (CEC) immigration stream.
• Academic factors were (in aggregate) the primary reasons international students cited for choosing to study at a Canadian university – with 49% referencing the quality of teaching.
Global talent pool
It is important to note that the global talent pool is growing deeper at our universities. According to the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission, the number of international students attending universities in the Maritimes has more than doubled over the past decade. In Atlantic Canada, the number of full‐time visa students increased 12 per cent to almost 11,000 last year.
In short, the right immigration policy is in place; the demand for skills is evident in the Atlantic Canada labour market; and thousands of international students are already attending our East Coast universities. In addition, like all university students, they offer the job market what it most needs – not only specific skills, but the ability to think critically, reason, adapt and get along with other human beings.
So the puzzle pieces are all at our fingertips. What we now need to do is build a partnership to put them together.
The universities will play their part by making international students more aware of the CEC program. This program can provide a pathway to citizenship, but the CRA research shows that many international students do not know that the program exists. Nor do they know that eligibility criteria include French or English‐language competency and a year of skilled work experience in Canada.
A team effort
Other players – including the private sector, provincial and federal governments – must also step up to make the CEC program work for international students who show a willingness to stay and work here in the region.
Business leaders and business organizations are also key partners in this initiative. They are best situated to identify the skills gaps in the Atlantic Canadian workforce, and to welcome international students inside their organizations to help fill those gaps.
Governments must also play a role, by unleashing the real potential of the CEC program to help place international students in careers that will prove essential to the region’s prosperity.
The bottom line is that many of our international students – from nations as diverse and geographically dispersed as China, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia -- would like to thrive and prosper in Atlantic Canada after graduation and to contribute to the region’s development and prosperity.
We should do everything that we can to help make it so. Governments, our universities and the private sector should now partner in transforming the CEC program into an East Coast success story. Our international students represent a talent pool that must be tapped.
(Peter Halpin has served as the executive director of the Association of Atlantic Universities (AAU) since December 1, 2003. In his capacity as executive director, Halpin serves as an advocate for the region’s university sector with governments and other key stakeholders in higher education, regionally and nationally.)