BY DAVID AGREN
March 04, 2006
Isabel Sandoval, 24, wants to learn English in a foreign country.
Ten years ago, she probably would have traveled to the United States, where the vast majority of Mexicans, wishing to pursue a foreign education, used to study English.
Instead, she´s looking further abroad, following the recommendations of her brother and several friends, who enrolled in English courses at Canadian schools.
"If you want to learn English, you go to Canada or England," the Zacatecas native commented, adding that neither she, nor any of her friends, ever considered heading to the United States.
"(People) might go to the United States to pursue a master´s degree, but not to learn a language."
Over the past decade, a growing number of Mexicans have passed on studying in the United States, instead opting for Canada, which has been actively courting foreign students by simplifying visa requirements and offering incentives for graduates to stay in the country after completing their programs.
Approximately 10,000 students enroll each year in Canadian colleges, universities, high schools and language schools, according to the Canadian Education Centre Network (CEC Network).
Most sign up for short-term language training; the average sojourn lasts 3.4 months.
Along with positive attitudes toward Canada and the ease of obtaining a visa, which isn´t necessary for programs lasting less than six months - an entry visa isn´t required either - lower prices and Canada´s relative proximity to Mexico also help lure students north.
"Canada is now the player in international education," said Miguel Ángel Tenorio, Guadalajara manager of the CEC Network, an organization that promotes Canadian education and the EduCanada fairs.
"People generally try to avoid the United States."
He listed two reasons: "The visa issue and the perception of Mexicans in the United States isn´t always the best."
Last week at the EduCanada fairs in Mexico City, Monterrey and Guadalajara, more than 60 Canadian universities, colleges, school districts and language schools pitched Mexican students on coming north, playing up Canada´s reputation for friendliness, safety, high standard of living and education quality.
EduCanada began rather quietly in 1997.
According to Tenorio, Canadian education institutions initially encountered two key objections from prospective students: distance and the weather.
"When we started EduCanada, people thought of Canada as very distant and very cold," Tenorio recalled.
Unable to change the weather, CEC Network officials promoted Canada´s proximity - Toronto is only a four-and-a-half-hour flight from Mexico City.
As for the weather, the prospect of experiencing a cold Canadian winter actually appeals to some potential students, including Sandoval.
"I want to see snow so deep that it buries the house," she joked.
Intrigue and a lack of familiarity also work in Canada´s favor.
"I already know the United States," Sandoval said, adding she wasn´t especially fond of the lifestyle there, having visited relatives north of the border on numerous occasions.
"I´d like to discover Canada."
After nearly a decade of steady - and highly-effective - promotional activity by Canadian education officials, Tenorio described the market in Mexico´s three largest cities as "mature."
Approximately 10,000 people attended EduCanada´s three fairs last week, a decrease from the 14,264 who attended the 2005 events. Fewer schools participated in 2006 as well.
Tenorio attributed the decreases to familiarity with Canadian education; many students now go based on word-of-mouth advertising. Some previous EduCanada exhibitors now have sizable alumni populations in Mexico.
"The market is very reference oriented," Tenorio said.
The Canadian dollar has also climbed over the past three years, increasing the attractiveness of other countries, most notably Australia, which has stepped up its recruiting in Latin America.
"Australia . has better prices and offers the possibility of working," Tenorio explained.
He added, though, that Canadian schools pioneered the market, which other countries are now exploiting.
Even with a surge in the Canadian dollar, tuition fees in Canadian high schools and post secondary institutions still compare favorably with their Mexican equivalents.
"Tuition [in Canada] is more or less the same price," Tenorio said.
Some longtime exhibitors also noticed the decrease in traffic at last month´s fairs, but still considered participating in EduCanada a fruitful endeavor.
"It´s still absolutely worthwhile coming here," said Janet Cacchioni, external promotions manager for the Vancouver Film School.
"Mexicans are some of the hardest working, most creative students in the world."
To maintain growth, the CEC Network has started hosting fairs outside of Mexico´s three largest cities. Its recent fair in León, Guanajuato, attracted more than 3,000 people. Future fairs are planned for regional centers like Culiacán, Mérida and Morelia.
"Canada is the only country interested in covering the whole of Mexico," Tenorio said.
Jody Rosen Spearing, Guadalajara director for Enlaces Mexico-Canada S.C., an agency that promotes international education, foresees Canada remaining the top choice for many Mexican students, even though competition is increasing and many of his clients are now inquiring about traveling to more exotic locales.
"People want diversity, but Canada will always be one of the top countries," he said, explaining that the desire for English-language training will keep the market strong.
"It´s not based on interest, it´s based on necessity."