Supporting international PhD students

Are we doing enough to keep them in Canada?

- March 27, 2012

Reuble Mathew, Dal PhD student. (Danny Abriel photo)
Reuble Mathew, Dal PhD student. (Danny Abriel photo)

Reuble Mathew, a soft-spoken 27-year-old Dalhousie PhD student, is one of many international students in this country who straddle two worlds. Originally from the province of Kerala in India, he has been studying in Canada for more than 10 years and has a hard time identifying with one nation more than the other.  “I’d say I’m more a global citizen than an Indian citizen,” he explains.

Mr. Mathew first came to Canada to do bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering physics at Queen’s University in Ontario. He later came east to Halifax to complete his doctorate.

His experience here, he says, has been wonderful. “At Dalhousie, I am part of a group that has a great sense of camaraderie. And the work – which involves research, teaching and learning – has been both challenging and enjoyable.”

And so, despite the lack of a definite attachment to either country, Canada is starting to feel more like home and, increasingly, like a good place to stay once he completes his studies. Along with the positive educational experience, Mr. Mathew considers Canada a tolerant society with good employment opportunities. The presence of extended family here doesn’t hurt, either.

Global studies

Mr. Mathew is one of more than 600 international graduate students registered at Dalhousie each year. They come from countries as close as the United States and as distant as Saudi Arabia.

According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, international PhD students make up 25 per cent of all PhD students in the country. Canada, with a reputation for tolerance and multiculturalism, has always had a relatively easy time attracting international students to our universities. The trickier part, however, is getting international students to stay – particularly in an age when employment prospects for young graduates are better than ever in countries like China and India.

To address this challenge, and to tempt bright young students like Mr. Mathew to remain in this country, Citizenship and Immigration Canada recently introduced a new initiative that may encourage more international PhD students to make Canada their permanent home.

Through the Federal Skilled Worker Program, 1,000 PhD students and graduates each year will now be able to apply to remain in Canada as permanent residents without the previous requirements of a completed degree, a job offer and work experience. PhD students will be able to apply after completing at least two years of study at a Canadian institution, while newly minted PhDs can apply up to 12 months after graduation.

Benefitting from talent

The new eligibility stream is expected to make Canada a more appealing place for international students to settle.

“Education in Canada is an investment in our future generations and future citizens,” says Ryan Robski, president of the Dalhousie Association of Graduate Students. “If students in whom this investment has been made leave Canada because of antiquated immigration laws, our economy is not able to fully benefit from the potential these highly skilled individuals have to offer.”

It’s also likely the changes will boost the success of Canadian universities in international recruiting.

“It makes Canada a more welcoming environment,” says Bernard Boudreau, Dalhousie’s dean of graduate studies. “That is to say, foreign students will feel the rules are not stacked against them if they do wish to stay.”

Mr. Mathew agrees, saying that if institutions and governments spend money to attract international graduate students, it makes little sense to not take steps to retain them. “It would be a poor use of resources if Canada didn't encourage students to stay and contribute to the economy once they have graduated.”

If Canada wants to develop a knowledge-based economy, says Mr. Robski, it makes sense to look outside our borders. “International students bring with them a wealth of cultural diversity and unique perspectives that benefit our communities as a whole.”

“Canadian students often have as much to learn from international students as they have to learn from us,” he adds.

So while retaining another 1,000 international students may only be seen as a small move, it is a step forward. “This is simply a welcoming opportunity that displays our acceptance of PhD student contributions to Canadian research and the economy in general,” says Dean Boudreau.

After all, says Mr. Mathew, if Canada proves not to be welcoming, he can just as easily go elsewhere.


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