Recently, I presented a paper at a conference attended by the heads of a select group of major global universities.
My topic concerned the increasingly divergent approaches to the recruitment of international talent among the world’s advanced economies. I argued that countries now preoccupied with building walls or burning bridges are putting their own long-term prosperity at risk. I documented how those taking the opposite approach are reaping significant benefits, highlighting Canada as an especially compelling case.
The response from my global counterparts was remarkable. To a person, they said how lucky we are as Canadians and how they wished they operated under a system like ours.
Canada is increasingly distinguished by its enduring, broad consensus in favour of immigration, as reflected in the system built by federal governments over the past half-century. We see this in the points-based approach used to assess prospective immigrants, and in policies that facilitate the recruitment of highly qualified professionals and grant international students a three-year work permit upon graduation. And when it comes to humanitarian objectives, notwithstanding current contentious debates, Canada remains an appealing destination for refugees and asylum seekers.
Debates on international talent mobility are ultimately shaped by societal values concerning openness, diversity and collaboration. By their nature, universities – and the advancement of knowledge – depend on the free flow of people and ideas across international borders. Ultimately, so do the societies in which they’re located.
The model of “brain gain” versus “brain drain” has now been supplanted by the concept of “brain circulation,” in which the mobility of talent creates a network of partnerships that transcends national boundaries and creates opportunities in each participating country. Toronto is a perfect example. The city, where more than half the population was born outside Canada, created more tech jobs in 2017 than the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle and Washington, D.C., combined. And, among international PhD students who graduated from U of T between 2000 and 2015, 46 per cent are now employed in Canada, while those who left the country are helping to raise our international profile and extend our global networks.
Still, we must not be complacent. We know that geopolitical dynamics and domestic policy shifts can influence the two-way flow of talent in unpredictable and unhelpful ways. Canadians rightly take pride in our model of multiculturalism and openness. But we need to remind ourselves of why it’s worked so well, and of the central role of immigration in sustaining our economy and strengthening our society. Institutions such as U of T have a critical role to play in recruiting and welcoming talented newcomers, from wherever they come.