BY MATTHEW FISHER, POSTMEDIA NEWS APRIL 21, 2012 11:20 AM
TOKYO — A typhoon-force wind was blowing and rain was pelting down like bullets. But neither the wind nor the rain prevented a school fair from being held at Canada's embassy in Tokyo earlier this month.
More than 1,000 prospective students and parents packed the embassy during the storm to seek information about Canadian schools. There to answer their questions were representatives of 56 Canadian school boards, private schools, community colleges and universities.
"What Canada stresses is safety, affordability and the quality of education," said Jeff Davis, manager, international programs, for the Greater Victoria School Board, which has 600 teenagers from abroad at its seven high schools and some of its middle schools.
"This a huge economic generator for us. It means teaching jobs for Canadians. Another benefit is that it keeps our school district vibrant."
Much has been made of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's recent pivot to Asia from traditional markets in Europe and the U.S. But the government's main focus has been on getting in on the Asian boom by increasing Canada's exports of natural resources. Much less has been said yet about how Canada's human and intellectual capital is already producing an economic bonanza that is likely to grow.
Without any environmental hearings or other political controversies, educating foreign kids has become a very big business in Canada. International students currently spend more than $6.5 billion a year in Canada and have created 83,000 jobs, according to a study commissioned by the federal government.
Ontario and British Columbia lead the way with 65,000 and 50,000 students each, according to the report by Roslyn Kunun and Associates, Inc. Students who chose to go to B.C. spend about $1.6 billion a year. That translates into about 21,000 jobs, according to the provincial Education Ministry's web site.
That lots of foreign students attend Canadian universities has been known for some time. However, the fact that scores of Canadian high schools are also big players is almost a secret. When the two parts of the business are added together, educating young foreigners in Canada is more important in dollar terms than revenues from Canada's lumber and coal exports.
Just as with almost every business today, there is a keen global competition for young Asians hearts and minds and their parents' money. Canada's chief rivals are Australia and Britain. Both competitors tend to have more lavish promotional campaigns. Canada tries to counter their bigger budgets by what the Japanese call "kuchi komi," or word of mouth.
"What I liked about Canada was that it was multicultural and much safer than the U.S.," said Emi Kawamitsu who attended Victoria's Oak Bay High School for four years and was invited to the embassy fair to talk with prospective students about her experiences. "What I tell everyone is that Canada is a wonderful place and that I like it a lot."
Airi Tanaka, who spent two years at Burnaby Secondary School, near Vancouver, tells those she meets at such fairs about such natural marvels as the west coast's annual salmon run. But what has her wanting to return to Canada for university is the quality of education she got as a high school student.
"I liked that they had provincial exams that you really had to study your ass off to pass," Tanaka said in perfect Canadian high school girl English. "The education was so different than in Japan, where we just listen. They make you participate in class in Canada."
To harvest this cash crop, educators from Canada travel every spring and fall on a circuit that also includes Korea, China, Vietnam and Thailand.
"Filling in the gaps," is how Davis, who lived and worked in Japan for five years, describes the pitch he makes for Victoria, where he started his own Canadian teaching career.
"They don't come here window shopping. They have done their homework beforehand and come with lots of focused questions."
At a time of serious pressure on education budgets across Canada, foreign students in Victoria bring in about $7 million or five per cent of the school district's annual revenues. Most of the students are typically "home stays" who live for between one and four years with host families. More than half of Victoria's foreign students are from Asia, with China sending the most, followed by Korea and Japan.
"Each of these students is wonderful in his or her own way," Davis said. "Many of them are highly motivated. Some are really brilliant. They make our schools better while helping us economically."
There are intangible benefits, too. Funds from overseas students help school boards to keep some optional classes and after-school programs going. Another value-added is that many foreigners who come to study in Canadian high schools end up returning for university or as immigrants who can settle relatively easily because they already have an understanding of what makes the country tick.
Although impossible to measure, potentially the greatest spinoff of this little known billiondollar industry is that a cadre of young Asians is being educated who will be imbued with Canadian values such as fair play. There is every reason to hope that they will be kindly disposed towards Canadians and trade with Canada when they eventually take on leadership positions in their own countries.
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