Canadian postsecondary students who cannot afford to study abroad may be in luck after the federal government shared details of a nearly $150 million international education initiative. Jim Carr, Minister of International Trade Diversification, laid out the government’s International Education Strategy at the University of Alberta on August 22.
“International education is an essential pillar of Canada’s long-term competitiveness,” Mr. Carr said in a statement. “Canadians who study abroad gain exposure to new cultures and ideas, stimulating innovation and developing important cross-cultural competencies. Students from abroad who study in Canada bring those same benefits to our shores.”
Mr. Carr said the strategy, which was announced in the government’s last fall economic statement and its budget in March 2019, has three main goals. It will aim to increase the number of Canadian students studying outside of Canada; diversify the countries from which international students come to Canada, as well as diversify their fields and levels of study as well as their study destinations within Canada; and increase support for educational institutions to help them grow export services and opportunities abroad.
The strategy, he explained, will provide $147.9 million in funding over five years, followed by $8 million a year in ongoing funding, to work toward achieving those goals.
The government has earmarked $95 million for an outbound student mobility pilot project, which will provide funding for up to 11,000 college and university undergraduate students to study or work abroad. Financial assistance will range from $5,000 to $10,000 per student each year. Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) will oversee the project, which will be administered by Universities Canada and Colleges and Institutes Canada. Half of the funds from the outbound mobility project will go to support underrepresented students, such as students from low-income backgrounds, students with disabilities and Indigenous students.
Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada (publisher of University Affairs), says his organization is discussing parameters of the outbound mobility program with ESDC, and is working with university presidents and directly with international affairs offices at Canadian universities to achieve optimal program design. A lot of details still need to be hammered out, “but we hope to have the program up and running in the new year,” he says.
Mr. Davidson acknowledges there are many barriers to studying overseas and anticipates the government’s strategy will help break them down. “One of the biggest barriers is financial, so this will help address that,” he says. “But it’s more than finances. It’s also about making sure that the curriculum is designed in such a way that students can take time abroad without extending their period of study.” Making sure credits earned overseas are recognized at home institutions is another part of the picture, he adds. “That sounds like it shouldn’t be too hard,” he says. “But, particularly for professional programs where there are a lot of professional requirements, if you’re going to become an engineer or a doctor or an accountant … finding a way of weaving that in is going to be important.”
For Adam Brown, chair of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations and a student at the University of Alberta, the international education strategy is good news. But, he says, allowing for more students to go abroad, especially those who have been underrepresented in international education in the past, will make it necessary for postsecondary institutions to put additional supports in place. “Making sure students don’t have too much of a culture shock, for example,” he says. “[And] if we’re thinking about students with disabilities, then absolutely there needs to be accessible accommodations made.” He adds that isolation and being away from friends and family can weigh on a student, so mental health services are also very important.
The government seems to agree: the strategy specifically mentions that “studying abroad can present logistical challenges, particularly for students who have never travelled overseas,” and requires participating postsecondary institutions to “provide wraparound supports and guidance to students studying abroad, as well as developing security strategies to ensure that Canadian students studying in other countries can do so safely.”
The Study Group on Global Education estimates that approximately 11 percent of Canadian undergraduates study abroad during their degrees, while other countries that are investing heavily in study abroad initiatives are seeing much higher results. According to the group’s 2017 report, which is quoted in the new federal strategy, 33 percent of France’s students, 19 percent of Australian undergraduates and 16 percent of students from the United States study abroad. The strategy also states that Canadian students who do choose to study overseas often go to the same countries: the U.S., Australia, France and the United Kingdom.
Additionally, the strategy states that more than 50 percent of international students coming to Canada are from India and China. Attracting a wider range of countries beyond India and China would foster sustainable growth of Canada’s international education sector, it says.
Sherilyn Acorn-LeClair, manager of international programs at the University of Prince Edward Island, says she was happy to see diversification as a priority in the strategy, noting that her campus needs to bring in more students from Latin America, Turkey, Thailand and the Philippines.
She echoes that financial limitations are the number one reason why Canadian students don’t study abroad, and that the funds going to the outbound mobility program will give more students the opportunity to travel. “I’m really excited about the boost because every year this is what we’ve been asking for,” she said. “To see the $5,000 to $10,000 per student being put into that just makes my heart sing.”
One concern Ms. Acorn-LeClair says she has with the strategy is that there will only be so many students who will be able to benefit from the funding. Looking at the bigger picture across the country, “11,000 students broken down per university … shrinks the numbers.”
And while there are challenges to studying abroad, Ms. Acorn-LeClair notes that the benefits are “endless.” When students travel overseas, they gain a sense of independence and an understanding of other cultures, which will help them later in life, she explains. “They’re going out into the world and experiencing independence, self-sufficiency, new cultures, new people. And when they get out into … the workforce, their colleagues are going to be from all different nationalities because of the way Canada accepts immigration,” she says.
In the future, Ms. Acorn-LeClair says she would like to see an international experience be mandatory for all undergraduate students. “There’s no better education than being on the ground, seeing these things first hand all over the world.”
When I was completing my PhD, my university had an agreement set up with a university in France. As someone who is fluent in French but wanted to strengthen my field-specific French to increase my marketability in Canada, I got approval from my supervisory committee and set up a supervisor in France. Once the funding and supervision were in place, my supervisory committee decided they no longer supported the experience for fear it would push me beyond the four-year funding period. This all happened within the first semester of my degree. Given how slowly progress is made in university bureaucracy, having this set up so quickly should have been evidence that it could be done in a timely fashion, not evidence that it would prolong my studies. The consequence was that I had to revamp my entire program of research to reflect remaining in Canada only. What’s the point in having these programs if faculty don’t support their students to take advantage of them?