Federalism, Foreign Policy and the Internationalization of Higher Education: A Case Study of the International Academic Relati



Federalism, Foreign Policy and the Internationalization of Higher Education: A Case Study of the International Academic Relations Division, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Canada



Roopa Desai Trilokekar

Department of Theory and Policy Studies

Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto

Doctor of Education December 2006




an Canada Gets Its Act Together In International Education?” the title of Robin Farquhar’s speech aptly captures the sentiment among Canadian international education researchers and administrators who lament the lack of a national international education strategy, especially given the growing importance of internationalization of higher education to a nation’s prosperity and economic agenda since the 1990’s. Numerous reports on the internationalization of Canadian higher education identify the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) as key to providing strategic leadership in this area and elaborate the many ways it could substantially increase its fiscal allocations, develop a flagship program and establish a nationally coordinated initiative.


The available reports on internationalization of Canadian higher education have been largely prescriptive. While there have been a few studies that have considered the impact of Canadian federalism on foreign policy or the federal role in international education, there has been no systematic study of internationalization of higher education from the policy perspective of the Canadian federal government. The objective of this thesis was to provide such a perspective.


Problem Statement


hy has the Federal government not established a national international education strategy? Why does Canada invest substantially less in this area than most developed countries? In an attempt to understand DFAIT’s policy perspectives, the research questions focused on the mandate and role of the International Academic Relations Division since its inception in 1967 to 1995, the changes in its policy and program approaches over time, the strategies or mechanisms developed for national policy coordination, and, more broadly, how the Department’s foreign policy framework influenced the work of the Division.


Three distinct bodies of literature provided a theoretical framework for this study. Joseph Nye’s concept of ‘soft power’ within foreign policy provided a tool to contextualize international education within a nation’s international cultural relations (ICR) policy. The theoretical framework on federalism provided by Ronald Watts, among other researchers, helped identify the dynamics of both educational and foreign policy making in federal states. The works of Andy Green and Peter Scott helped in defining the internationalization of higher education and establishing the changing, yet central role of the nation state in higher education policy.


Significance of Study


his study contributes to the analytical and comparative literature on internationalization of higher education in three distinct ways. It provides a detailed case analysis of the Canadian context, through the study of one primary federal agency, DFAIT. It contributes to the comparative literature on internationalization of higher education by providing a three-country comparative analysis on policy approaches. And lastly, it contributes to our understanding of the role of the Federal government in the internationalization of higher education and how both policy development and policy outcomes are influenced by a nation’s unique federal characteristics as well as its specific historical, political, socio-cultural and educational contexts.




he study focused on the International Academic Relations Division as it is this unit within DFAIT that has primary responsibility for the management of international education and learning opportunities within Canada’s foreign policy. An in-depth case analysis and a historical approach formed the research methodology for this study. Primary data were collected from both the National Archives and the Departmental files and consisted of memos, letters, studies, reviews and reports covering different aspects of the topic from the working files of the Cultural Bureau. Sixteen interviews were conducted with mainly government officials to complement and fill gaps in chronological data obtained through the archival texts, and also to assist with data interpretation and analysis. Secondary data were also collected from the Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC) files. The study also included a comparative methodology involving two other federal states, Australia and Germany, to illuminate the specificities of the Canadian case. The comparative analysis was drawn mainly from secondary sources of data and focused on national policy approaches within each country’s foreign office.



Major findings


his study identified three distinct historical time periods and established that since its inception in 1967, the International Academic Relations Division has engaged in the internationalization of higher education in one form or another, albeit its specific role and mandate and its program and policy approaches have changed over time. It identified a gap in the current literature on internationalization which makes no reference to the earlier Departmental interest in investing in international study programs. The period (1967-1973) identified by the thesis is an important one as it establishes the Department’s interest in Knight’s terms, “integrating international/intercultural dimension into the teaching, research and service elements of an institution.”


The second time period 1974-1989 identified in the thesis is also very important as it reflects an anomaly in the Department’s history and suggests a strategic policy approach of the federal government to ICR. It was during this period that the government established the Canadian Studies Program Abroad (CSPA) and established a set of policy and program approaches which can be identified as uniquely and distinctly Canadian. Sadly, neither the program nor its policy approaches have been recognized by the existing literature on internationalization. It is interesting to note that while the literature recommends that the Department establish a flagship program to support internationalization, the thesis established that in the Department’s perspective the Canadian Studies Program Abroad (CSPA) is its flagship program.


While the current literature suggests that DFAIT take on a policy coordination role, the history of the Division/Department indicates that it has made several attempts at policy coordination in this area, the most comprehensive being in its third period from 1990-1995, when it published the paper on ‘The International Dimension of Higher Education in Canada: Collaborative Policy Framework.’ However, national policy coordination has been a challenge due to interdepartmental jurisdictional boundaries, the provincial responsibility for education, as well as an absence of effective policy coordination mechanisms between the two levels of government. The federal government’s role is largely determined by what is considered an ‘educational’ issue, and therefore a provincial responsibility, and what is not. The role of the federal government in policy coordination may or may not face challenges depending on where the initiatives originate and how they are framed; in this context, the thesis suggests that perhaps DFAIT may always play a limited role in matters concerning ‘international education.’


The government’s low level of commitment to ICR is not exclusively a result of Canada’s federal structure. The Department’s relatively weak position within the federal government and its limited foreign policy approach has an equally powerful impact. In fact the thesis argues that the Canadian federal structure acts as a buffer from enabling the federal government to take a more intrusive role enabling it to align international education with goals similar to that of the Australian government, more market driven with little if any academic content or purpose. Like Australia, Canadian ICR foreign policy is highly trade focused and culture is viewed primarily as trade.  


The three country comparison established that the importance accorded to soft power in a country’s foreign policy directly influences its internationalization approaches. Countries like Germany which have a clear rationale for culture, viewed as soft power in international diplomacy, also have policies that result in a broader mandate for ICR.  Further, while ICR contributes to internationalization policies and programs, the policy agendas for internationalization of higher education are driven by national ministries of education, as is the case in both Germany and Australia, not their foreign offices. In this context, the thesis questions the fundamental assumption that DFAIT should provide leadership in developing a national strategy on the internationalization of Canadian higher education and suggests that nationally mandated departments such as Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) have a greater role to play in the internationalization of Canadian higher education.




he thesis makes several recommendations for policy, programs and future research and suggests that DFAIT’s role in international education can be further strengthened by revitalizing its ICR function, revisiting the Department’s original interest to support international study programs, and by expanding/strengthening the CSPA program to benefit both the international and Canadian academic communities. The CSPA needs to be acknowledged and discussed as part of Canada’s internationalization strategy. As well there is need to ensure policy input from the academic community and strengthen communication between the different stakeholder groups.


In conclusion, the thesis proposes that the literature on the internationalization of Canadian higher education is rather simplistic in its discussion of internationalization as an educational policy issue. Clearly, in the Canadian case, it is not sufficient to lobby for a national policy on internationalization as the federal structure of a country, i.e., the existence/absence of a federal ministry of education, and policy coordination mechanisms influences the nature of national policy making, policy decisions and policy outcomes. Internationalization of higher education has to be analytically and critically understood as a broader higher education policy agenda and its discussions mainstreamed in the literature on Canadian higher education. Internationalization is not only about crossing borders and promoting student mobility, it is a strategy that affects the purpose and function of national higher education institutions and systems. 



Higher Education Perspectives. ISSN: 1710-1530