Kourosh Houshmand prepared for six months before heading off to South Africa to investigate how the country achieved almost universal birth registration, an essential requirement of receiving health care and attending school.

“We went to gain insight into a success case,” said the fourth-year University of Toronto student, who went on the trip as a part of a study-abroad course. “But when we talked to people, a lot of it was still about the challenges. … The people who were most marginalized are still unaccounted for.”

Without the trip abroad, Mr. Houshmand said, he and his classmates would have never realized the reality on the ground.

And whether he applies to graduate school or finds a job after graduation, Mr. Houshmand says the experience gives him something to talk about to any scholarship committee or employer.

“Something like this has created stories for us to be able to tell in job interviews,” he said. “Anyone looks and sees it as an important experience.”

His experience is typical of the benefits of studying abroad, but also of the obstacles that such programs must overcome if a greater proportion of Canadian students are to participate. For one, they require intensive investment from faculty to prepare students for the experience and for understanding another culture. For another, although the cost of Mr. Houshmand’s research trip abroad was covered through a grant for the project from the MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth, students must often come up with the money themselves.

Most Canadian students are aware of the challenges, blaming lack of money and uncertainty about receiving academic credit for their hesitation. In fact, an extensive study to be released Tuesday has found that only slightly more than two per cent of Canadian students took courses or did research in a foreign country in the 2015 academic year. That’s one percentage point less than in prior years and puts Canada both on the lower end of OECD countries and runs contrary to trends elsewhere.

For several years, Australia, the United States and Britain have increased funding for study-abroad programs and are also working to make it possible for lower-income students to participate.

“International students who come here are getting a whole range of skills,” said Karen McBride, president of the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE), the group that conducted the study. “Our young people are missing out on those skills because [they] don’t travel abroad,” she said.

On Monday, during its annual conference, CBIE will launch a national campaign to raise awareness among policy-makers on the benefits of study-abroad programs. Governor-General David Johnston, a long-time champion of international education, will deliver the opening address at the Ottawa event.

“Students and parents think that learning abroad is a nice-to-have, not a must-have,” Ms. McBride said. “We need to shift it so that people think it’s an integral part of a quality education in today’s world.”

That’s a world where Canada’s Finance Minister muses about how young workers will have to adapt to precarious labour. Failing to prepare students for the reality of the labour market is not an option, says Joseph Wong, the University of Toronto political science professor who organized the trip to South Africa.

“The students that are truly outstanding are those who can talk insightfully about these kinds of experiences,” Dr. Wong said. “That’s what will differentiate someone who will be able to manage the kinds of careers they are going to have, as opposed to climbing rung to rung.”

Canada has taken some steps to send more young Canadians abroad. The Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Scholarship began two years ago and is funding 1,500 Commonwealth students to study in each others’ countries. This year, its $40-million funding over five years was increased by $10-million.

But other countries are doing more. Australia is investing $100-million over five years into its New Colombo Plan, which funds scholarships for students studying in the Indo-Pacific region. In the United States, President Barack Obama has been personally involved in the efforts to send more Americans abroad, and the rate of annual growth has jumped as a result, although a newly isolationist-tilting America may see that trend reverse.

Supporters of study-abroad programs argue the costs are worth the benefits. For example, students participating in Erasmus, the European Union’s long-running student-mobility program, have a 23-per-cent lower rate of unemployment than other youth. And a 2015 Canadian survey of small and medium-sized companies done by Léger Marketing for Universities Canada, the national university lobby group, found that 82 per cent of companies value an understanding of and experience of intercultural knowledge.

“One of the things that we know is that our students are going to need global skills, they need to be globally literate and mobile,” said Paul Davidson, the executive director of Universities Canada.

Universities Canada has called for a doubling in the number of undergraduates taking study-abroad programs, to 50,000 a year from the current 25,000. (Graduate students are estimated to make up another 15,000 participants a year.)

As might be expected, study-abroad programs are highly appealing to most students. A CBIE survey of more than 7,000 students that will also be released this week found that 86 per cent would like to study abroad. But an almost equal number don’t have the money to do so. Another quarter are worried the experience may not count for credit or delay their graduation.

“Right now, the only students who have those opportunities are the students who can afford to have those opportunities,” Ms. McBride said. “It is critical that our talent becomes internationalized and we need to address some of the barriers.”

To overcome their doubts, Canada could look to Britain and Australia, where students can work abroad as part of an education program, and where planning for study abroad starts as early as high school.

“We found it was not just the cost of travel and study, but the opportunity cost of having to give up work that was magnified for disadvantaged students,” said Belinda Robinson, the chief executive of Universities Australia.

The group bolstered participation rates by going to high-school fairs and posting on social media. It also increased its student-aid program for lower-income students.

In the U.K., students with family incomes under the national median receive an extra £100 a month in addition to European funding from Erasmus, the European educational exchange program.

“The biggest challenge is that demographically, it’s a narrow group of people that go abroad. Yet those groups that are least likely to go abroad have the most transformative effects,” said Anne Marie Graham, director of outward student mobility for Universities UK, the British lobby group for the sector.

But British and European students also have the option of working abroad, a program Erasmus introduced in 2007. It is now the fastest-growing part of the program. Students get direct experience working for an employer in another country, making it easy to explain their skills any time they apply for a job.

Students will reap the full benefits of study abroad only when programs are carefully assessed, some caution. A study at the University of Guelph found that not all students enhance their intercultural understanding as a result of a study or work term abroad.

“There is an assumption that students learn by osmosis,” said Andrea Paras, an assistant professor of political science at the university. “There is not a whole lot of work tracking the learning that is taking place. … What if they go in with stereotypes and assumptions about where they are going?”

After spending the last academic year teaching a course on intercultural learning, Dr. Paras travelled to India with 15 students last spring, who worked on and studied various community education projects. She says taking a year to consciously think about how to learn across cultures was invaluable for the students once they were on the ground.

Still, a minority of students came back with more negative perceptions, she added. Because they were required to write and understand the experience and how it changed them, the students still benefited.

“It should not be just about numbers, it’s about what can we do to make sure that the experience each student has meets its potential,” she said. “You have to provide opportunities to transform the experience into a learning opportunity.”


A chance to escape the classroom and engage in hands-on learning

Even at the undergraduate level, study-abroad programs have long moved beyond sitting in a classroom in a foreign country. Instead, they often leave the classroom behind almost entirely.

The New Peripatetic, Dalhousie University:

For two decades, Judith Thompson, an English literature professor at Dalhousie University, has researched the work of radical romantic activist John Thelwall, a writer, journalist and activist who chronicled his observations while out on walks in London and parts of England in a 1793 book called The Peripatetic. “He was all about giving voice to the voiceless,” Dr. Thompson explained. “He subverted the conventions of all tourist guides. … He wanted to take you down, off your high horse, to engaging working-class people in their lives.”

This summer in England, Dr. Thompson and colleague Kate Scarth will recreate some of Thelwall’s wanderings with a group of undergraduates, spending their days walking and meeting with community groups and activists, and evenings writing up their own observations.

They will see first-hand how issues of the early 1800s continue now. More than 200 years ago, Thelwall was writing about gentrification, although he did not call it that, Dr. Thompson said. “Thelwall was talking of the problem of people knocking down houses for the poor and building big estates in the exact same spot that a community group is now working.”

The Reach Project, University of Toronto:

Joseph Wong, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, is convinced that study-abroad experiences can be as complex as any faculty research project.

Dr. Wong has organized trips to Brazil and South Africa to investigate how governments and NGOs work with the poorest citizens, a project that will add more destinations later this year.

“These are students doing world-class research, these are not students doing student research,” said Dr. Wong, who has also recently taken on a new job heading up the university’s efforts to increase student participation in research and study abroad.

“The message I want to make clear to my colleagues is that to build these kinds of experiences into your own pedagogy is not just organizing a trip for students, but is something that is very much tied to our own research.”

In South Africa, he said, it was students who persisted for days in their quest to get interviews with reluctant senior government officials.

“They get a sense of how to hustle for these interviews, they persevered and were dogged.”

India Summer Field School, University of Guelph:

The most valuable thing Carly MacArthur knew when she began teaching English in an underprivileged community in Dharamsala, India, was how little she knew. Before leaving, Ms. MacArthur had taken a year-long course to help her understand the cultural context in which she would be working.

“We talked about how to work in solidarity with the communities rather than an outside force coming in,” Ms. MacArthur said. “There was a lot of balancing me coming in as an English teacher without the right qualifications, and trying to be effective with what was already in the community.”

Andrea Paras, the professor who gave the course and organized the trip, argues that small-scale trips are often most effective because they give faculty the chance to think about the ethics of taking students to work and study abroad.

“There needs to be professional development for faculty, because how can a faculty member who hasn’t thought about these skills teach these skills to their students?” she said.

The Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Nov. 13, 2016 8:46PM EST
Last updated Sunday, Nov. 13, 2016 9:17PM EST