By Glen A. Jones

The broad reforms to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) are having an impact on international academic relations in Canada. While the changes have essentially added new layers of regulation to the TFWP itself and the categories of labour mobility exempt from the TFWP (now grouped under the International Mobility Program (IMP)), including international postdocs, my sense is that these new procedures are having particularly challenging repercussions for visiting professors.

Picture1Visiting professors are a key element of international academic relationships. It is a bit like a visit from a member of your academic family; an exchange of emails reveals that a sibling would like to spend some time at your place, learn how your family is doing, meet the neighbours and perhaps work together on a project. The visitor isn’t asking for money; by definition they already have a job at another university. If you invite them they will take care of transportation, book accommodation, find funding, in some cases obtain the necessary approvals from their institution and government, and use your invitation as part of the paperwork to arrange for an appropriate visa to cross the border.

These visits are important to the academic family. They build relationships. They allow for an exchange of ideas, research findings and perspectives. They are a foundation for new partnerships and networks, and for sustaining long standing collaborations. For the price of providing a temporary office and internet access, the visitor will often provide free lectures, interact with your students, and help you understand how things are done differently somewhere else. In some cases they are full research partners, working collaboratively with Canadian colleagues to produce new knowledge.

What would happen to family relations if you had to pay a fee before you officially invited an uncle or a distant cousin to visit?

Impacts of TFWP Reforms

Under the new regulations the university must do far more than simply issue an invitation. They must officially sponsor the visitor, pay an Employer Compliance Fee of $230, and then obtain a number that can be used by the visitor to apply for a Canadian work visa (which itself carries a fee of $155). Familial visits look different when you have to pay for them.

The new fee is modest and the sponsorship process is not overly onerous, but it has caused universities to develop new procedures and approval systems. The sponsorship must come from the central university administration, and requests need to be reviewed, approved and submitted to government. Changes to the details of academic visits, which are common, require submitting this paperwork anew. The university will need to decide whether the fee will come from central coffers, or be paid from faculty or department accounts.

These new procedures and costs would be only a minor irritation if there were a dozen visiting professors each year, but a medium-sized university will have hundreds of visiting professors annually; the new fees and transaction costs for a large research university will be well into six figures. Universities will find ways to absorb these costs and meet the new regulatory requirements because they understand the importance of these relationships, but they may also look at visiting scholars just a little differently.

The new regulations were introduced in February of 2015, and it is still too early to have any clear sense of their impact on the number of international faculty visiting Canadian universities. At the very least one might expect that the new procedures will cause at least some Canadian professors or academic units to hesitate before exploring the possibilities of hosting an international visitor. Some may decide to be more selective, to sponsor the well-known relative from Boston or Oxford, but to now turn down requests to visit from somewhat more distant cousins from Africa or Asia.

Undoubtedly, the overall number of visiting professors will decline simply because the process for approval and sponsorship is more difficult, and some of these relationships may be viewed as beneficial but not essential.

International Academic Relations

There are, of course, broader implications. China devotes considerable attention and resources to supporting selected faculty so that they can be visiting professors at universities in other countries. This is an important part of their national strategy for strengthening the higher education system, and building and improving international academic relations. China is far from alone. Supporting international faculty mobility is a key element of national strategies for internationalization, strengthening research and innovation, and facilitating the development of new networks and partnerships in many countries.

The creation of new barriers for visiting professors to Canada or a decline in the number of sponsorships will simply mean that foreign professors will visit other universities in other countries. Anything that creates a barrier to hosting visiting professors has implications for broader international relationships and research partnerships. It can decrease the potential opportunities for Canadian research and innovation, for our students to benefit from international expertise, and for supporting the professional development of faculty from countries that would greatly benefit from our collaboration. It is not good for Canada.

The new regulations are counterproductive and unnecessary. Canada, and Canadian universities, benefit from hosting visiting professors while the costs of these visits have been historically borne by others. We want to increase international student recruitment, but we decide to more tightly regulate visits from their professors. We want to strengthen our national capacity for research, innovation and development, but we are making it more difficult to build the international relationships that might further that goal.

Not all requests for family visits are accepted (and I am not going to touch the complexities of family immigration which would push my little analogy too far); academic units have always had to determine whether visits from specific professors would be productive. However our overall objective should be to support the expansion of productive international relationships, not make these relationships more difficult to develop.