“Why do so few Canadians study abroad?” That was the key question that the hiring committee asked me when I interviewed for the position of programs manager in the Academic Relations Section of the Canadian Embassy in France 15 years ago.
At the time, Canada and France had just signed an exciting youth mobility agreement facilitating the two-way mobility of thousands of 18- to 35-year-olds and I desperately wanted to be part of the team that would develop and implement the programs. I had studied abroad, taught abroad and run a study abroad program in Paris. I had seen the personal and professional difference such an experience made on my students and I had lived it too. Working on it at both a policy and program level for Canada wasn’t just a natural “next step” in my career trajectory, it was a dream come true. (I got the job.)
Those were exciting times in Canadian foreign policy. We were signing an unprecedented number of youth mobility arrangements around the world. We were designing promotional material, creating new IT systems, training colleagues from other embassies on program start-up and management, negotiating treaty renewals with foreign governments – this was heady stuff! And our participation numbers were great: tens of thousands of young people from around the world were coming to Canada. We were meeting our targets and filling our quotas in record time.
On the policy front, we were also seeing significant advancements around the world: 46 European ministers of higher education had just signed the Leuven / Louvain-la-Neuve Communiqué setting an outbound student mobility (OSM) target of 20 percent for each of their countries by 2020; the United States was signing its 100,000 Strong Initiatives with China and the Americas; the U.K. had established an outward student mobility strategy; and France had written access to international student mobility into its new Higher Education and Research Act as a social justice issue.
What about us?
While postsecondary students and young people from around the world were eagerly traveling to Canada for work/study opportunities, we just were not seeing the same outbound student movement from Canada. Canada was also notably absent from the global outbound student mobility policy movement. By 2013, we had become the sole G7 country without a strategy to increase outward student mobility for its postsecondary students.
Conversations with Ottawa about outbound student mobility inevitably turned in circles around constitutional responsibilities for education, postsecondary skills training, and so on. It was disheartening. Our students were getting lost in the discussions.
And then came the March 19 federal budget announcement.
Outbound student mobility finally a federal priority
In its announcement of $148 million over five years to the new International Education Strategy, starting in 2019-2020, Budget 2019 specifies that the funds will be split between education promotion and outbound student mobility. This indeed foreshadows the promise of a distinct OSM program for Canada – a first ever. Additionally, these appear to be new funds for OSM rather than a clever repackaging of existing funds for graduate research abroad or Mitacs research and internships abroad.
True, OSM will be a “pilot” program, but that’s OK because, for reasons unrelated to education, skills training or even foreign relations, outbound student mobility is still contentious in Canada. The spectre of brain drain looms large even though OSM is mobility undertaken while enrolled in a Canadian diploma or degree program (as opposed to a student going abroad to get a foreign degree).
There is excellent research demonstrating the value of OSM, notably in improved academic and employment outcomes for students from underrepresented groups. In fact, to ensure that access remains a priority in OSM policy development and implementation, the European Commission has made providing support to disadvantaged learners a key performance indicator and has created a monitoring mechanism that holds EU member states publicly accountable via an online mobility scoreboard for mobility support provided to students with a low socio-economic background. It’s not just the most privileged who benefit from OSM if a government invests properly.
A pilot project is a safe way for Canada to move forward and the Budget 2019 announcement is encouraging. It opens the door to finally giving our students the global opportunities they need, the opportunities to see and experience that what is learned and how it is learned is different than in Canada, that classroom dynamics are different, workplace interactions are different, even discussions over drinks and dinner are different. Learning to adapt to new environments is an essential skill. Equally important is bringing back that first-hand knowledge to contribute to healthy campuses here in Canada.
Let’s see if the new International Education Strategy will indeed deliver on the promise of helping our students acquire the same valuable work/study experiences abroad as their global counterparts, or if they will once again be left behind.
Diane Barbarič is the former head of the Higher Education and Youth Mobility Division of the Canadian Embassy in France. She is currently completing her PhD in higher education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. Her research, supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, focuses on outbound student mobility public policies in Canada and abroad.