Expectations are running high that the coming federal budget will include money for students who want to study abroad.
Policy experts point to several hints in recent months that suggest the Liberal government is preparing to support the idea as part of its effort to boost skills training and expand international trade.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau has said that skills training will be a key part of his March 19 budget, which is the Liberal government’s fourth and final budget before it seeks re-election this October.
Universities Canada president Paul Davidson said employers want workers who have some international experience, yet Canadian students fall well behind other countries when it comes to gaining foreign experience as part of their postsecondary education.
“Canada positions itself as one of the most open economies, a trading economy, with strong relations around the world, but our students are among the most parochial in the world," he said. "Very few of them will take a term abroad or a year abroad as part of their studies. Get on an airplane. Get out of your comfort zone. Learn a new language. Be in a different culture and bring what you learn back to Canada.”
One of the reasons policy experts are expecting action on this front in the budget is due to a line in Mr. Morneau’s November fall update, which said Global Affairs Canada and Employment and Social Development Canada will work to develop a new “international education strategy.”
“We’re quite hopeful that there will be something in this budget,” Mr. Davidson said.
Mr. Morneau has said that his budget later this month will include a focus on four issues: skills training, seniors, housing measures aimed at millennials and the cost of pharmaceuticals.
Pierre-Olivier Herbert, a spokesperson for the minister, declined to provide additional detail.
However, he said, “We’re going to move forward to make sure that Canadians feel optimistic about the future by thinking about how they can get the skills they need for the future.”
Former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna, who is now deputy chair of Toronto-Dominion Bank, said he also views that line in the fall update as a sign that more details will be announced in the budget.
“There’s a lot of interest right now in international students coming in, but we need as much emphasis on Canadian students going out,” he said in an interview. “It’s my hope that the government of Canada will disclose practical and aspirational goals in their upcoming budget.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s former policy adviser, Roland Paris, co-authored a 2017 paper with former federal deputy minister Margaret Biggs that included detailed recommendations on how the government could fund incentives for students to study abroad.
The paper noted that many of Canada’s peer countries already have such programs in place, with an emphasis on encouraging Canadian students to study in emerging countries. It pointed to a public-private plan launched in 2009 in the United States that aimed to increase the number of American students studying in China to 100,000 within five years, a target that was exceeded.
The research found that only 11 per cent of Canadian undergraduates go abroad for at least part of their degree programs. In contrast, the percentage is 16 per cent in the U.S., 19 per cent in Australia and 33 per cent in France.
Mr. Paris, who is now a professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa, said the ideas in the paper attracted the government’s attention over the fall.
He and Ms. Biggs, who is now Matthews Fellow in Global Public Policy at Queen’s University, were asked to brief federal officials about the recommendations in September, 2018, and then again in December after the release of the fall update.
“We very much hope that Canada will take the necessary steps to equip our youth and our country to succeed in a more complex world,” Mr. Paris said.