Canada needs to send five times as many students abroad as it does now, a new report released Friday says, arguing that the country’s international education strategy needs to focus on Canadians leaving the country as much as attracting international students.

While the number of international students coming to Canada is rising, only 3 per cent of Canadian students are going abroad on international study programs or exchanges, one of the lowest numbers among Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.

“Every career path in the future will be in the global sphere,” said Karen McBride, the president of the Canadian Bureau for International Education, which released the report. “If we don’t increase the number of students studying abroad, we won’t be involved in the trade deals that Canada is putting into place now, or in meeting global challenges.”

To meet the target of sending 15 per cent of postsecondary students abroad, however, the country will have to change a culture that values international education experience among its business students, but undervalues it in most other disciplines, many observers say.

Two years ago, the advisory panel on Canada’s International Education Strategy recommended that the country double the number of international students coming here by 2022, something that it will easily achieve if growth continues at the current pace. The panel’s second proposal, for provincial and federal governments and universities to establish 50,000 scholarships for Canadians to study abroad, has not progressed.

“When you look at what other countries have done, that figure is not only not unreasonable, it may be a little bit modest,” said Amit Chakma, the president of the University of Western Ontario in London, who led the advisory panel.

Australia is putting $100-million over five years behind its Colombo Plan, aimed at sending thousands of students to study in neighbouring Asia-Pacific economies. The U.S. is seeking to double the percentage of students studying abroad to 20 per cent, and Germany wants to increase the number of German students who take some courses abroad to 50 per cent by 2020 from an already world-leading 30 per cent.

Canadians have allowed the world to come here rather than going out to meet it, says Yuen Pau Woo, the former president and CEO of the Asia-Pacific Foundation. Schools in major Canadian cities, for example, are a microcosm of the world.

“That diversity has in some sense lulled Canadian educators and parents into a sense that students can get international experience just from going to school. That’s a false sense of international education and cannot substitute for living in a foreign country and being forced to adapt to different ways of living,” Mr. Woo said.

Complacency is not the only hurdle. Mr. Woo argues that in his experience, Canadian business does not place the same kind of premium on international education that employers in other global economies do.

“In many other jurisdictions, particularly in countries where global trade and investment are important, employers put a premium on international experience. The first question they ask is ‘What international experience do you have?’ … In Canada, in many cases it’s seen as a detriment,” Mr. Woo said.

The most comprehensive global survey to date of employers’ views about the importance of international experience for new hires suggests Mr. Woo is correct. About half of Canadian employers in the 2011 study in the QS Global Employer Survey said they looked for graduates who had gone on an exchange. In Germany and Switzerland, that number was 80 per cent. And in all countries, CEOs – with whom students have little if any contact – were by far the most likely to believe that their company would benefit from hiring students with international education experience.

“CEOs are very adamant about the need for global skills, but hiring managers are looking at filling immediate needs and that may not include global skills,” said Daniel Obst, a deputy vice-president at the Institute of International Education, a 100-year-old non-profit group that administers and advocates for international exchanges between the United States and the rest of the world.

Aaron Joshua Pinto, who did two terms at European universities while getting an undergrad degree in international relations and French from Western, said he found that employers don’t ask about studying abroad. He needed to explain how the skills he acquired translate to the workplace.

“It is simply not enough to seek an international experience – the experience itself can have little value for an employer. [You] must be able to speak about transferable skills,” he said.

Jayson Myers, the president and CEO of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, says employers value the soft skills that study abroad fosters, from languages to flexibility, to the ability to navigate other cultures. A graduate of Oxford and the London School of Economics and Political Science, Dr. Myers says travel abroad builds character in a way few other experiences can.

For many students, however, studying abroad seems expensive. A paper by the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance this spring emphasized that students who undertake study abroad are more likely to come from a multicultural family with family incomes above $80,000.

“If we think study abroad is worthwhile as a society and that this should not just be for students who have a lot of money, or who are willing to go into debt, then we should value them as a society,” said Lynne Mitchell, director of the University of Guelph’s Centre for International Programs who has been working on study abroad initiatives for two decades.

Dr. Mitchell says the university is looking at offering short-term, six- to eight-week exchange programs that allow students to study abroad in May and June and “still come back and work as a camp counsellor in July and August.”

Shorter programs also help students better match the course offerings of foreign universities to Canadian postsecondary calendars.

Megan Beretta who is doing an exchange with the Reims campus of the Paris Institute of Political Science (SciencesPo) in France, found that she could find only two European universities where calendars were similar to her school year at the University of Ottawa.

Dr. Chakma says persuading students to go abroad is ultimately a cultural problem.

“If we ask can you still make a reasonable career if you don’t have international exposure, the answer is yes,” Dr. Chakma said. “But if you ask the question differently – ‘Can a young person realize their potential without international experience?’ My answer is no.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Nov. 21 2014, 7:44 AM EST
Last updated Friday, Nov. 21 2014, 7:54 AM EST