by Tazeen Inam in Mississauga

The World University Service of Canada (WUSC) will double the number of refugee students it will sponsor in the coming academic year, which is good news for Syrian refugees seeking post-secondary education in Canada.

Michelle Manks, manager of the Student Refugee Program and Campus Engagement at WUSC says the number has been raised to accommodate students affected by the Syrian crisis.

“Each year, we usually sponsor about 80 students, but next year we are expecting over 160 students. Half of them will be coming from Middle East,” she says.

One of the challenges in bringing Syrian refugees into the Canadian school system is that their academic strengths and needs are not the same. A majority of refugees have been living in camps for decades or were born in camps, whereas most Syrian students have been displaced more recently and as such have often spent more years in school.    

Reem Alhaj, a WUSC sponsored student at York University in Toronto, feels fortunate that she was accepted into the program after escaping Syria six years ago, while her brother was trapped by the regime forces. 

“I wanted to get my education. I have all my documents with me and my English is good,” she says, commenting on why she was accepted to the program.

Universities’ collaboration with WUSC

WUSC is a non-profit agency with headquarters in Ottawa that partners with dozens of Canadian universities and colleges. It has sponsored over 1,500 refugee students since 1978 from refugee camps all over the world. 

Since 2010, it has worked with camps in Jordan and Lebanon, taking in students from Iraq, Palestine, Sudan and Somalia. It plans to target asylum-seekers in Malaysia and expand its services for Syrian students over the next few years.

“Syrian nationals are not from camps necessarily, because they are largely in urban contexts,” Manks clarifies.

In response to the Syrian displacement, York University has agreed to contribute its own resources to sponsor an additional five WUSC refugee students starting in September 2016.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]"Next year we are expecting over 160 students. Half of them will be coming from Middle East."[/quote]

“It is a significant increase and likely to match the historic commitment of [the] University of British Colombia,” says Don Dippo, faculty member and local adviser to the WUSC committee at York University.

At Ryerson University, these students are called “WUSC Scholars” says Abu Arif, coordinator for international student support at Ryerson University. 

“We do not lower our academic standard to accept the students because if we do that they won't be successful here,” says Arif.

Every year, Ryerson University absorbs one or two WUSC sponsored students. Next year it plans to accept more students from Syria. 

“It depends on how much levy we have in our funds. It has to make financial sense,” he adds.

Syrian students more prepared for higher education

After the finalization of applications, these students are invited to take a language test — either in English or French — and an interview to gauge their strengths.

“People studying in universities, for instance living in Damascus, are more prepared to begin studies here,” says Dippo.

In terms of language, it’s relatively tough for Syrian students who followed Arabic language curriculum to transition to school in Canada, but easier for students coming from camps that teach English or French. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“We do not lower our academic standard to accept the students."[/quote]

For Syrians coming from an urban background, the transition process for them is often less jarring since they likely have attended school more recently and might already have university experiences.

In addition to upholding tough academic standards, the program does not have much leniency when it comes to missing documentation such as transcripts.

“Unfortunately, we are not able to accept students who don’t have documents. It’s the requirement of institutions,” added Manks.

Support for students upon arrival

Universities and colleges have their own structures to provide academic support for arriving refugees. Faculty members and student committees often help them throughout their transition to Canada, meeting them at the airport and assisting them during their settlement period both on and off the campus.

“We also offer various programming and workshops for the students’ transition period,” says Arif.

This scholarship is unique in the sense that these students come in as permanent residents who are allowed to work in Canada or opt for student loans. This is important for those who hope to send money back to their families. Other international students require work visas to earn money in Canada and often return home after completing their studies.

While these refugee students do receive significant support, many still face challenges settling down at the institutions and in a new country.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]For Syrians coming from an urban background, the transition process for them is often less jarring.[/quote]

After arriving in Canada in August 2014, Alhaj appreciated the WUSC team and says that they made her feel accepted; however, her fellow students struggled to understand her experiences. 

“They have over-generalized the diverse crisis of Syria,” she says.

“I had to face classification. I had lots of sympathetic responses, which are sometimes humiliating and lack empathy,” Alhaj says.

Now in Canada without her family, Alhaj is working towards self-healing and is motivated to become involved in international affairs. Her dream is to become a member of a decision making body that can help her people back in Syria.

"I will try to do something about it. Syrians have suffered and fought too much for democracy,” she concludes. 

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Published in Education
Wednesday, 14 October 2015 05:14

New Immigrants Struggle to Save for College

by Marieton Pacheco in Vancouver

In today’s economy, Filipina-Canadian healthcare worker Bing Orense struggles to save for her children’s education.
 
Still, she puts in $150 every month for two of her kids — Jenny, 15, and NJ, 12 — knowing it will be a worthy investment in the future. 
 
She says it doesn’t even matter if she has to borrow money for it; she’s learned a hard lesson from her experience with her eldest daughter, 25-year-old Joanna.
 
Difficult beginnings
 
Orense arrived in Canada under the Domestic Worker Program in 1990, four years before her family joined her in the country. 
 
Like it is for many new immigrants, starting a new life together was difficult at first as both Orense and her husband worked odd jobs to help make ends meet. 
 
She heard about the Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP), a tax-sheltered investment option for parents and guardians to save for their children's post secondary education, through an insurance agent. However, with many expenses to meet, there was simply no extra money to contribute to an RESP.
 
“It starts with affordability,” says Orense. “It’s paycheque versus expenses — what are my priorities? With food, housing, clothing, transportation and some leisure expenses, our paycheque wasn’t even enough to cover the basics.”
 
The family’s circumstances improved by 2001 when Orense and her husband both found regular jobs with extended health and dental benefits. They started setting aside $100 per month, but it was too late. 
 
[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“It’s paycheque versus expenses — what are my priorities?"[/quote]
 
The savings weren’t enough to cover their daughter Joanne’s tuition when she began attending the University of British Columbia (UBC) in 2008. 
 
Orense explains that they were able to get about $8,000 from Joanne’s RESP, which was only enough to cover her first year at UBC. 
 
She and her husband had to take out annual loans of approximately $10,000 to cover Joanna’s second to fourth years of studying. The burden became so heavy that by her final year in university, Joanna offered to take out a student loan.
 
Orense says that the reason she and her husband were willing to incur debt to pay for most of Joanna's education was because they wanted to be supportive.
 
“I think we Filipinos are used to paying for our children’s education,” Orense explains. “At that time, it was what both my husband and I wanted… we encouraged her to keep going to school, learn and get a degree.”
 
The reality of having to pay for her own school came with a lot of sacrifices for Joanna. She lived and stayed at home while attending university to save on dorm and rental costs. The young student also worked odd jobs to pay for her allowance and other spending. 
 
Importance of saving early
 
Although Orense believes this experience taught Joanna how to budget and save money, she is taking a different approach with her younger children, having started their education savings early. 
 
Although she has a bigger family with more expenses now, she tries to save for her children’s education even if it means starting small.
 
“I regret not making the most of the 20 per cent government grant so I really try and force myself to save,” Orense says. “Every extra I have goes there, it’s an investment.”
 
Financial adviser Lorina Serafico agrees. 
 
Serafico is also co-founder of the Vancouver Committee for Domestic Workers and Caregivers Rights (CDWCR). The organization holds weekly sessions to empower caregivers with knowledge on issues like labour rights, immigration policies and financial literacy. 
 
[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“I regret not making the most of the 20 per cent government grant."[/quote]
 
Serafico admits that education savings are hardly a priority for many caregivers in their first few years in Canada. Much of this has to do with their temporary status in the beginning.
 
“It’s hard for nannies because their children are not here yet and so saving for their education is still far from their minds,” she explains. “Their priority is to get landed status first for their husband and children to come here.”
 
She adds that once they bring their families to Canada, these caregivers also have a limited pool of money that can go to savings since many of them still carry debt to cover the costs of migrating to a new country. 
 
Take advantage of the free stuff
 
Despite these challenges, Serafico says there are ways to start saving for education early as long as it is made a priority. 
 
Newcomers can make use of money from government assistance programs like the Child Tax Benefit and the Universal Child Care Benefit to start their children’s RESP. 
 
Serafico says many caregivers can learn more about the RESP when they receive notice from government of their eligibility for the Canada Learning Bond, a grant offered to children of low-income families to help start their education savings.
 
She also encourages Filipinos to break the habit of sending their children to private elementary and high schools when they can take advantage of the public school system and use the money to save for post-secondary education instead. 
 
“You can start small, and take advantage of the free stuff and any money you can put to college, put it there,” urges Serafico.
 
Journalist Priya Ramanujam mentored the writer of this article, through the New Canadian Media mentorship program.

This is the first n a five-part education series on New Canadian Media looking at the experiences of different families with saving for education in Canada. November is financial literacy month across Canada and November 15-21 is Education Savings Week.
 
Visit SmartSAVER.org to learn more about Registered Education Savings Plans (RESP) and to start an RESP with your choice of six major banks and credit unions. RESP information is available in 16 languages. Apply online between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31, 2015 and you will automatically be entered to win one of nine $1,000 weekly prizes! Learn more here.
 
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Published in Education

by Dr. Ghayda Hassan and Hicham Tiflati (@HTiflati) in Montreal

Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the latest born of extremist movements, has drawn international condemnation and wonder about its power in drawing youth (Muslims and non-Muslims) from the western world to Syria and Iraq. Canada’s spy agency is reporting a dramatic spike in the number of Canadians joining the fight overseas.

It is estimated that more than 40 young men and women have left Canada to fight in Syria. This past January, at least six Montrealers were believed to have flown to Turkey and then crossed the borders into the Islamic State to join three others originally from Sherbrooke, Quebec, who left a few months earlier.

In March, a seventh Quebecer was believed to have joined his peers in Syria.

Presently, two young Montrealers, are facing four charges for an alleged terrorist plot in Quebec.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Research shows that discrimination and ostracism are radicalizing factors.[/quote]

Research shows that discrimination and ostracism are radicalizing factors. Radicalized groups often use discourses around individual and collective grievances in order to recruit and radicalize youths. Individuals who perceive that their group is ostracized may experience increased hatred and a need to take revenge.

The massive and diversified recruitment in the West, and the rhetoric use of religion, fuels the sentiment of panic, feeds Islamophobia in the West and produces divisive effects, reinforcing perceptions of “us” and “them”. This, in turn, further feeds intercommunity tensions and negatively affects youth well being.

This highlights the urgent need for inclusive policies and for building solidarities among youth around citizenship.

‘We Never Saw it Coming’: Families

Many of the young people who violently radicalize in Canada seem to be university or college students, many of whom led what seemed to be normal lives before their departure. Contrary to stereotypes about who are often targeted, many of the youth who have left, were rather well integrated within their social networks, were achievers and came from well functioning families.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Whether it is ‘well functioning’ educated youth or those who feel disaffiliated from their Canadian society, the motives behind their departures are still not clear.[/quote]

‘We never saw this coming,’ or comments like it, are often heard from families, friends and teachers alike.

Whether it is ‘well functioning’ educated youth or those who feel disaffiliated from their Canadian society, the motives behind their departures are still not clear.

Of all concerned by the departure of young adults, perhaps those affected most are parents, close relatives and friends. For many, the departure of their loved son, daughter or friend sometimes comes as an unpredictable, unexpected shock, coupled with the hurt and anxieties related to loss and lack of contact from the loved one. 

But can we really predict the departure of youth?

The answer is complex – essentially, yes and no.

No, because research and clinical evidence show there is no such thing as a common profile or clear-cut indicators for youth who become violently radicalized.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Radicalized groups such as ISIS use a very large array of strategies of recruitment and gradually establish secrecy and then separate and isolate the youth from their networks and from significant others.[/quote]

No, because ISIS, just like any violently radicalized group, targets youth who feel stigmatized and ‘othered’ by their societies. And even though ISIS, and groups like it, generates fear and horror, it is somehow appealing to youth’s idealism, perfectionism, search for belongingness, and sensation-seeking inclinations.

But, are there any indicators at all? Yes, because adults involved with youth can look for a number of alarming signs.

Radicalized groups such as ISIS use a very large array of strategies of recruitment and gradually establish secrecy and then separate and isolate the youth from their networks and from significant others.

For starters, a sudden intensity of rigid religiosity associated with notions of moral purity and superiority of the in-group is one sign.

In addition, a sudden intense romantic relation with someone abroad may be another indicator.

Some youth may start to express their personal identity in a manner that is fused with the ideology of the radical group and/or may become isolated from their peer group.

Finally, an increased hostility and mistrust towards previously trusted others at home or outside, as well as disengagement from larger society, may be an indicator to watch for.

Indeed, a youth’s identity should not be defined by his or her level of distance from, or assimilation to host society, nor by immigrant roots, but rather through his or her feeling that they can fully participate in Canadian society.

Bringing Back our Youth

Questions such as, ‘is ISIS Islamic at all?’ or ‘how far is the real Islam from ISIS?’ won’t help us change the minds of those who are thinking of leaving, nor will any counter-argument to prove the youth wrong.

The question then is how can we help?

[quote align="center" color="#999999"][P]oliticians must guarantee that youth who have left and wish to, or can, come back will not be prosecuted, but rather offered protection and rehabilitation in order to re-integrate with their family and society.[/quote]

Prevention and intervention programs must be multidimensional and include all the sectors of society: politicians and policy makers, the media, health and social services, colleges and universities, community and religious leaders, families and youth.

Perhaps most importantly, and in order to make the return possible, politicians must guarantee that youth who have left and wish to, or can, come back will not be prosecuted, but rather offered protection and rehabilitation in order to re-integrate with their family and society.

Additionally, parents need support in re-establishing contact with their youth and dealing with loss, fear of stigma, guilt, shame and shock. Community interventions and positive outreach programs need to help re-establish a safe and supportive environment for parents and youth.

The education sector should work on reducing polarisation of discourses among all members of society and improve youth and parents’ critical media literacy in becoming resilient and critical in the face of Internet and media. Teachers can work on increasing solidarities among youth and their ability to envision a positive citizenship in Canada.

“De-radicalization” programs must target all types and grounds of violent radicalization, including discrimination, alienation, humiliation, anger, and not just fundamentalist or violent ideologies; otherwise, the point will be missed.

One Canadian who has left to fight in Syria is one Canadian too many.

Our key to safety is restoring Canada’s strong welcoming model, and combating polarizing political discourses and religious and xenophobic extremisms, from all sides of the spectrum.

This will only be possible with a real engagement from the diverse stakeholders to make all possible efforts in order to collectively fight against discrimination, exclusion and systemic barriers to socio-economic progress in the Canadian society.

This can be done by reinforcing intercommunity cohesions and supporting youth in full citizenship participation within Canadian society regardless of their racial, religious, ethnic, educational, economical or migratory status.


Dr. Ghayda Hassan is a clinical psychologist and professor of clinical psychology at The Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and has several research affiliations. Her research is centered on four main areas of clinical cultural psychology: 1) Intervention in family violence & cultural diversity; 2) Identity, belonging and mental health of children and adolescents from ethnic/religious minorities; 3) Cohabitation, intercommunity relations and violent extremism; 4) Working with vulnerable immigrants and refugees.

Hicham Tiflati is an Islamic Studies instructor, and a PhD candidate in the department of religious studies at the UQAM. His academic and teaching interests include topics such as Western Muslim identities, integration, citizenship and the role of religious education in (re)shaping identity.

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Published in Commentary

by Danica Samuel (@DanicaSamuel) in Toronto

Over half the population of international students in Ontario are deciding to stay put after graduating, and it’s for a good reason.

A recent study titled International Students in the Ontario Postsecondary System and Beyond, which was funded by Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario and presented at the National Metropolis Conference in Vancouver, shows a significant increase of international students living in the province between 2000 and 2012.

International Migration Research Centre (IMRC) researchers found an increase in students coming from Asia, Africa and the USA to study in Ontario, but more importantly found that over 50 per cent are opting to remain in Canada after completing their studies.

One of the IMRC researchers, Dr. Margaret Walton-Roberts, says it’s important to evaluate the students’ experiences, and how they are impacting Canadian immigration, when looking at the study’s findings.

“We need to understand what is happening to these students in terms of their transition into the labour market and transition into permanent residency,” says Walton-Roberts.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Tuition fees are a transmission of funds to Canada’s post secondary sector. It is also an investment in an individual’s education. As long as that person can reap the benefits of their investments, that’s okay. Can they enter the labour market, or if they go back to their country, will their credentials offer them the opportunity to have a wage premium?” - Dr. Margaret Walton-Roberts, International Migration Research Centre[/quote]

“International students are becoming more a part of the immigrant demand and that is a deliberate policy and pathway that the government has engaged in.”

An Economic Boost

According to the study, from 2002 to 2011, 190,000 international students came to Ontario and over 60,000 made a transition to another visa.

Walton-Roberts claims there are several factors to the growth, but most recognized is the Student Partners Program (SPP), which originated in 2009 as an assisting program for Indian students looking to study at Canadian college institutions. India is also the leading country in international student migration.

In addition to SPP boosting college registration, international students in general represent more of an economical boost in terms of immigration.

International students are now considered the fourth largest import in Canada and Walton-Roberts says the focus should be on making sure everyone benefits from this.

“We could look at it as a privatization of immigrant settlement processes,” she explains.  

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“I can’t shake the sense that we as international students are keeping the whole system afloat, but being chased away right after it’s done with us.” - Mahnoor Yawar, International Student[/quote]

“Tuition fees are a transmission of funds to Canada’s post secondary sector. It is also an investment in an individual’s education. As long as that person can reap the benefits of their investments, that’s okay. Can they enter the labour market, or if they go back to their country, will their credentials offer them the opportunity to have a wage premium?”

Exorbitant Fees

For some international students, like 27-year-old Humber College journalism student, Mahnoor Yawar, from Dubai, it’s hard to see the benefits of the transmission of funds Walton-Roberts speaks of.  

“I’m frankly tired of having to pay twice the tuition as local students and getting half the opportunities available to them,” Yawar says.

“I can’t shake the sense that we as international students are keeping the whole system afloat, but being chased away right after it’s done with us.”

For 22-year-old Achint Arora, who is studying accounting at George Brown College (GBC), his transition to Canada from India was relatively smooth, but costly.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“When we look at the major countries international students come from, you have to consider the gender politics in those countries and how comfortable families might be sending their daughters overseas.” - Dr. Margaret Walton-Roberts, International Migration Research Centre[/quote]

He applied online, as well as successfully passing his International English Language Test with a score above average.

“I always wanted to study across seas, so I did my research, applied and they accepted me,” explains Arora.

When it comes to the fees, he agrees with Yawar. “For international students the fees are too high, and paying fees at universities are next to impossible. University is about $26,000 a year, and a college is $18,000. So I did some research, read reviews and decided to attend GBC.”

International students pay anywhere from $11,000 to $13,000 more than their domestic counterparts.

Gender Parity

Although many foreign students are entering into Ontario, there has been a significant decrease in female international students.

According to IMRC, from 2008 to 2012 there was a decrease of eight per cent of females coming to Ontario for education.

Walton-Roberts says it’s a reflection of the countries most international students migrate from.

“When we look at the major countries international students come from, you have to consider the gender politics in those countries and how comfortable families might be sending their daughters overseas.”

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“If there is a person in India practicing accounting for 15 years, how can I compete with him? People who are applying outside of Canada, and [those] who are sitting in Canada, are now in the same boat, and it’s a competition.” - Achint Arora, International Student[/quote]

Yawar says she was one of the fortunate females that was able to study abroad.

“There’s also a certain conservatism in the South Asian/Middle Eastern cultures that suggests women shouldn’t move out of their family homes, and especially so far away from it before they’re married,” says Yawar.

“I was lucky enough to have very supportive parents who want their girls to be able to support themselves before making major life decisions, so we ended up here.”

For some, Walton-Roberts says it boils down to money.

“It is a huge investment, and it may be that the family decides not to make that investment in their daughter.”

Life After Graduation

IMRC statistics show that 75 per cent of students transitioned from temporary to Permanent Residence (PR) in Ontario.

Plus, according to economic reports, they are making $3,000 more than the average permanent resident who did not study in Canada.

“We were only able to access certain data, and those transitioning, we did an estimate based on their characteristics and the pathways they took,” clarifies Walton-Roberts.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“[We’re] a headache for companies... I was told it will be a long process for both the company and international students to apply for PR, so it’s more convenient for them to hire a Canadian.” Achint Arora, International Student[/quote]

Despite the promising numbers, though, Arora says the hardest part of being an international student is actually obtaining a stable job after completing school. With only four years given to find and maintain a job after he graduates, the pressure is on, he adds.

“[Citizenship and Immigration Canada] is becoming tougher, especially with their new Express Entry,” explains Arora. “If there is a person in India practicing accounting for 15 years, how can I compete with him? People who are applying outside of Canada, and [those] who are sitting in Canada, are now in the same boat, and it’s a competition.”

Arora says another problem lies with companies not willing to go the extra mile to help recently graduated international students.

“[We’re] a headache for companies. They have to write a letter for my citizenship, a LMO, and more, just to apply for the Express Entry. I was told it will be a long process for both the company and international students to apply for PR, so it’s more convenient for them to hire a Canadian.”

But Roberts says that the colleges have effectively set up their programs for the labour market and in the next few years the process will be much more profitable.

“I suspect there is a focus on the college programs because there is in an interest in getting entry into the labour market,” she explains.

“The fees are already less and many colleges have oriented themselves to the international market. Recruiters are a part of that story as well and colleges have had a very active relationship with them through marketing their programs effectively overseas.”

For now, Yawar isn’t entering the labour market, but says when she does, getting a job in her field will be challenging for reasons centred on diversity, or a lack thereof.

“I know Toronto gets a lot of praise for being diverse and having the most opportunities for a career in media, but at the end of the day, it’s a claim based in statistics rather than action. The lack of diversity – in race, in gender, in class – in media careers is a genuine problem that few are ready to acknowledge, because the existing culture of privilege is too comfortable.”

Yawar continues, “Nevertheless, I have hope that there’s a position out there I’m uniquely suited for, and will keep seeking out every opportunity that comes my way.”

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Published in Education
Wednesday, 20 August 2014 15:18

In Asia, Cheating to the Test

by Andrew Lam (@andrewqlam) in San Francisco

CNN recently reported that college applications from Chinese foreign students to the US sounded exactly the same. 

In fact, one admission officer read a phrase in one of the applications that sent up red flags: “Insert girl’s name here.” The number of Chinese students in the United States has reached 235,597 as of 2013 but admissions officers said that “as many as one in 10 applications to U.S. colleges by Chinese students may include fraudulent material, including phony essays and high-school transcripts.”

Cheating is a worldwide phenomenon, and is a challenge even here in the United States, but in Asia it has reached near-crisis levels. Last year, riots broke out when teachers at a school in Zhongxiang, in China’s Hubei province tried to stop students from cheating. Parents fought police when they found out their children were prevented from cheating. It’s only fair that their children should cheat, they reasoned, since everyone else was cheating as well. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]When you take into account that two out of three Asians in America were born overseas, it's no wonder that even the most diligent Asian students feel more comfortable in science classes than in English literature, where raising your hand to offer opinions is not only encouraged but counts toward the final grade.[/quote]

Can Asians think?

To do well on tests is the end point, not necessarily to learn. So much so that some years ago Kishore Mahbubani, a career diplomat from Singapore, posed this question in the title of his book,"Can Asians Think? Understanding the Divide Between East and West.” A rhetorical title surely since Asia, from Confucius down to dissident artist Ai Wei Wei (the creator of the Bird’s Nest in Beijing) to writer Haruki Murakami, abounds with philosophers, artists and thinkers. But Mahbubani does have a point: The majority of the population tends to fall into conformity and while a few are winning prestigious literary and artistic awards, the majority measures success via material gains and it begins with doing well on tests, ethical considerations be damned. 

Is this a uniquely Asian problem? Intellectual laziness is a major issue here in the United States too, and students buy homework online to avoid thinking the way they download music from iTunes. But America still values those who think outside the box, originality. We immortalized Steve Jobs for his inventions. We mourn comedian and actor Robin Williams’ passing for his unique, brilliant, and fierce brand of humor. Williams invents words without thinking, jokes fall out of his lips unrehearsed and we all roar in laughter, awed by his inventiveness. The inventor, the loudmouth, the class clown, the individual with a vision, the maverick – these are encouraged still in America. 

I learned to say “I disagree” to my father in English when I first came here at age 11 from Vietnam at the family table. In Vietnamese, it would have sounded harsh and unfilial (unbecoming of a filial son), and unthinkable. But the “I” fell off my tongue much easier in English. It allowed me to separate myself from the clan, the collective. It allowed me to think for myself. America encourages rebellion against the collective: follow your dreams. 

Alas, back in Asia the ego is still by and large suppressed. The self exists in the context of families and clans. It is submerged in the service of shared values and ritualized language. A student raising his hand to disagree with a teacher would make a rare sight, indeed, in Vietnam, and may in fact be seen as a direct challenge to authorities. You are measured by how well you do on tests, end of point. 

Plagiarism

A professor friend of mine teaches Asian American studies at a college here in the Bay Area. Every semester she catches her students cheating, mostly in the form of plagiarism. “I said to the class, ‘three of you plagiarized,’” she once told me. “’But I’ll be nice for once. Just rewrite and slide the new midterm essay under my office and I won’t flunk you.’” Three days later, she found 11 new essays under her door upon the deadline. “A lot of them are foreign students or immigrant kids, and they are not confident with their own voice.”

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]The inventor, the loudmouth, the class clown, the individual with a vision, the maverick – these are encouraged still in America. [/quote]

When you take into account that two out of three Asians in America were born overseas, it's no wonder that even the most diligent Asian students feel more comfortable in science classes than in English literature, where raising your hand to offer opinions is not only encouraged but counts toward the final grade.

Asia has become an economic powerhouse in the 21st century. China’s economy will soon surpass those of the United States and Europe. Friends of mine in East Asia are quite proud of this fact. But to them, I often ask, “What does all that mean?” Materialism, after all, is not an ideology, it’s selfishness writ large. To create a viable civilization it starts with clear moral values regarding pedagogy, a shared sense of purpose, and a critical mass of thinkers and inventors. That is, it usually takes a lot of thinking and imagining and re-inventing for a civilization to have its sphere of influence emanating beyond its borders. 

And my suspicion is that it usually starts in the classroom. 


Andrew Lam is an editor with New America Media and author of the "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora," and "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres." His latest book is "Birds of Paradise Lost," a short story collection, was published in 2013 and won a Pen/Josephine Miles Literary Award in 2014.

Republished with permission.

Published in China
Tuesday, 11 February 2014 05:00

Foreign students may lower our standards

by Brian Lee Crowley

Between 2000 and 2008, the number of foreign students in post-secondary education worldwide doubled from 1.8 million to 3.3 million. That number may double again by 2020.

The international student population in Canada grew by 60 per cent nationwide between 2004 and 2012. We broke the 100,000 level for new arrivals for the first time in 2012. They spend more than $8 billion annually in Canada, including tuition fees, rent, and living expenses. Ottawa wants to double the number of such students by 2020.

International students, who tend to pay high fees, are prized by cash strapped administrators. They are doubly prized in regions in demographic decline, where a fresh inflow of funded students is manna from heaven.

According to one Nova Scotia study, if that province wants to have the same number of students in 2031 as it has today, it will have to double international recruitment. Almost a third of students would then be from overseas.

This hunger for international students isn’t limited to the demographically challenged. Fast growing B.C., has twice as many international students as its share of Canada’s population, and Premier Christie Clark wants to increase that number by half again by 2016.

Gold Rush Fever

You get the idea. Canadian authorities suffer from a peculiar form of gold rush fever that is causing many of them to abandon their critical faculties regarding international students. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. And universities believing that foreign students will be their saviours almost certainly falls into this category.

Sure, the benefits are easy to spot. Saskatchewan, to pick one example, realizes almost $200m in economic benefits each year from international students. But here are just a few of the issues that too often get shunted aside in the rush to foreign student gold.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]It is actually quite difficult to control the quality of international students. The usual test of English language competence, the TOEFL, is a written test that ignores students’ aural comprehension. Many arrive without even the basic ability to understand what is being said in the classroom.  This problem is not limited to Canada. In Australia, it emerged that roughly 30 per cent of foreign students graduating from the country’s universities did not have basic English competency. [/quote]

Then there is fraud. In many countries there is a lively industry in faked credentials and exam cheating, including the TOEFL. This is not surprising; the desirability of a foreign qualification creates a strong incentive to cheat, especially since the chances of being caught are quite slim, and once students are here, universities are under strong pressure to push them through to keep the money flowing.

Lacklustre Brand

This doesn’t only have implications for the foreign students themselves. It also has huge implications for Canadian students and taxpayers. In a brave article that caused outrage in politically-correct circles, two professors who had taught graduate-level university classes in B.C. wrote that, in addition to pressure on them to “adjust their expectations,”  of foreign students, too much class time is being spent on basic language skills and explaining context Canadian students already knew. “Qualified students can hardly be blamed if they slouch in their seats and study their shoelaces as the professor iterates, yet again, something they learned in grade school.” These concerns are increasingly being echoed by other teachers.

Before the predictable outpouring of outraged commentary arrives about how excellent our universities are and we attract the cream of the crop, know that Ottawa’s own research shows the opposite. In focus group work done in several source countries for international students, the conclusion was “There is no awareness that Canada has world-class educational establishments; indeed, apart from a few mentions of University of Toronto there is very little awareness of any Canadian educational establishments.”

Prestigious and well-funded institutions, such as the University of Toronto, are thus be best placed to set high standards for their international student intake. Less illustrious and poorer ones in internationally obscure corners of the country may not find it so easy to be demanding in a world where post-secondary choices for funded students are expanding rapidly and the international competition to cash in is fierce and Canada’s Post-Secondary Education brand is so lacklustre. This will be doubly the case where those institutions face declining Canadian enrolments and foreign students, no matter how weak or even fraudulent their qualifications, represent desperately needed cash.

If the gold rush for foreign students isn’t to result in Canada exploiting them to support our own universities and colleges, while simultaneously lowering standards for domestic students and harming the reputation of our institutions, those now breathlessly promoting foreign student recruitment need to accept that they have a costly obligation to set tougher rules and ensure transparency. Testing needs to be tougher and rigorously monitored. Fraudulent applicants need to be combated. Faculty need to be reassured that all students will be subjected to the same standards of evaluation and those standards will not be diluted. This will be expensive and cut numbers. But as anyone with a university degree should be able to tell you, you can’t get something for nothing.

Brian Lee Crowley (@brianleecrowley) is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca. A slightly different version of this column originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on Jan. 24, 2014.

Published in Commentary

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