Skip to main content

International students Aude Raffestin of France, right, and Joanna Peterschmitt of Britain relax in residence before classes at McGill University on Nov. 20, 2014.CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/The Globe and Mail

Jayson Myers always knew he would leave the small town where he grew up outside of Guelph, Ont., but he couldn't have imagined he would spend nine years in England doing graduate work.

"We had students from all over Europe, Asia and Africa. It was much more cosmopolitan than anything in Canada at that time," said Dr. Myers, now the president and chief executive officer of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters.

He has kept up with the connections he made while at the London School of Economics and Political Science and Oxford, and believes that Canadian business needs young employees whose character has been shaped by global study experiences. Their personal networks are invaluable to capitalizing on trade deals negotiated between governments.

According to a report released Friday, that view needs to be urgently embraced by Canadian business, students, families and postsecondary institutions.

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 countries. The report, from the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE), argues that percentage needs to increase fivefold if the country wants to successfully navigate global markets.

"Every career path in the future will be in the global sphere," said Karen McBride, the CBIE's president. "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 is achievable if growth continues at the current pace. The panel's second proposal, to establish 50,000 scholarships for Canadians to study abroad by the same date 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, Ont., who led the advisory panel.

Indeed, other countries have set much more ambitious targets. Australia is putting $100-million over five years behind its Colombo Plan, aimed at sending thousands of students to study and work in neighbouring Asia-Pacific economies. The United States is seeking to double the percentage of students studying abroad to 20 per cent, and Germany wants to increase the proportion of German students who take some courses abroad to 50 per cent from an already world-leading 30 per cent.

Canadians have enticed the world to come to us 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.

In his experience, Mr. Woo says, 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 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.

Dr. Myers, however, says that employers value the soft-skills that study abroad fosters, from languages to flexibility, to the ability to navigate other cultures.

Aaron Joshua Pinto, who did two terms at European universities while getting an undergrad degree in international relations and French from the University of Western Ontario, said 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.

For many students, however, studying abroad seems expensive. A paper by the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance this spring reported that more than two-thirds of students felt the cost of leaving Canada was prohibitive and emphasized that students who go are more likely to come from families with a household income over $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."

The First in the Family program housed at Butler University in Indianapolis targets students who are the first in their families to attend university. For parents, materials about the benefits of study abroad are printed in English and Spanish.

"Students would apply, but end up not going because they said their parents don't understand the need to go and they never even went to college," she said.

When the program began two years ago, 2 per cent of applicants to study abroad were first-generation university students. This spring that number will be 18 per cent, said Kathy Walden, the assistant director of communications at the Institute for Study Abroad at Butler.

Dr. Chakma says fear of the cost of going abroad is cultural too.

"Most people don't see study abroad as an investment. I encourage our students, even if it's another $5,000 that they have to be in debt, that it's worth it," he said.

Interact with The Globe