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Understanding Canada – the latest victim of austerity

On May 1, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada announced that as of 2013 it will be phasing out the Understanding Canada programme and reducing funding for international scholarships due to the current fiscal climate. The initiative, launched under its current name in 2008, has in one way or another been in place since the 1970s and provides grants to foreign academics as well as institutions across a number of research, mobility, and collaboration schemes. The main conditions are that selected participants undertake short periods of study or research in or on Canada and further disseminate the information through publications, academic courses, conferences or seminars in their home country. The main goal of the programme is to actively promote knowledge on Canada as well as the country’s interests across the world.

These latest reductions to international higher education programmes supported by the Canadian government are part of a larger austerity drive at the department which does not exclude the diplomatic services and staff. However, despite the programme’s relatively low budget of CAD 5 million (EUR 3.85 million) and previously embraced high impact supposedly generating over 33 times the invested value (reported in 2009 by the government itself), Understanding Canada has become another victim of ‘berserk’ budget cuts. To put this into perspective, Canada is slashing an established cultural diplomacy tool that has been able to successfully maximise its value at a time when for example China is investing ever more into the Confucius Institute initiative – there are currently close to 350 around the globe.

Austerity measures are a common feature of today’s struggle against the global economic crisis and it is only recently that education has been hailed as one of the antidotes. No one is denying that fiscal responsibility is necessary but at the same time, increased efficiency with limited budgets can only be achieved if such cuts are sensible and make sense. The phasing out of Understanding Canada does not seem to be one of these.

Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Understanding Canada Previous Understanding Canada website