Op-ed published by the Toronto Star, September 8, 2012
By Alastair Summerlee
President, University of Guelph
Ex officio director, Board of directors, Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada
Student mobility in higher education is a two-way street. We want to attract top students from around the world to study in Canada, and we want Canadian students to benefit from study-abroad experiences. While the incoming traffic of international students is humming along rather nicely, with good growth potential, outgoing traffic is like the road to a Canadian beach in March.
Although we still lag behind key competitor countries in international student recruitment, our share of the pie has been growing. In 2011, the number of international students enrolled in Canadian universities grew for the 16th consecutive year. There are now 100,000 international students from more than 200 countries studying at Canada’s universities.
Why is this important? For starters, international students enrich the educational experience of Canadian students by bringing global perspectives, cultures and languages to our campuses. Attracting students from around the world also helps build prosperity in Canada.
There’s a myth out there that these students are a drain on our tax dollars, but that’s simply not true. International students typically pay the full cost of their education and have a huge economic impact on Canada. According to a federal government report released in July 2012, international students generate 81,000 jobs, nearly $8 billion in spending and more than $445 million in government revenue annually. That’s worth more than our export of wheat.
In the coming years, universities and their partners in government and the private sector will increasingly work together to bring more international students to Canada’s campuses. But we must also do more to expand opportunities for Canadian students to study abroad. Only 12 percent of today’s undergraduates participate in international study experiences for academic credit before they graduate. The world demands something more of us.
Canada’s future is increasingly shaped by global, fast-moving interconnected forces. To understand these challenges, we need a workforce with knowledge of other countries, cultures and languages, and an ability to establish partnerships with colleagues from around the world. Getting more Canadian students to live and learn in another culture is about developing global citizens and building the labour force Canada needs to be prosperous in the knowledge economy.
According to a recent survey by the Canadian Bureau for International Education, 91 percent of employers say they value job candidates with international experience because it develops cross-cultural understanding. And 50 percent said they would hire a candidate with study abroad experience over one without — all else being equal.
International study experiences also play a significant role in students’ personal growth. For many young Canadians, university years are the most transformative time in their lives and this is enriched by exposure to new cultures, languages, communities and experiences. Students return from overseas placements with an expanded understanding not only of the world around them, but of themselves. And they come back with a better understanding of the value of being Canadian.
At the University of Guelph, I have seen hundreds of students return from global study experiences with a new awareness of what is magical about Canada, of what is incredible about living here. They come back with a sense of marvel at what we do and accomplish on a daily basis; things that they used to take for granted.
Unless we significantly boost the number of Canadian students gaining international study experiences, Canada risks being left behind. Consider what our economic competitors are doing. About 33 percent of German and 20 percent of American university students participate in study-abroad programs over the course of their university studies.
Financial considerations are often cited as the most significant reason for Canada’s dismal participation rates in international study experiences. We can do better.
A pan-Canadian international student mobility program, with both government and private sector funding, would help students gain the international experience they need to achieve their potential and contribute to the global economy. This program should include opportunities for both short-term and long-term study, work and research abroad. Private sector involvement will be key to providing students with hands-on experiences through internships and similar opportunities.
I am more confident that this will happen — and soon — with the release of the advisory panel’s report on Canada’s International Education Strategy on August 14. The panel — led by Western University President Amit Chakma and mandated with advising the federal government on a new strategy for international education — calls for a major new mobility program to enable an additional 50,000 Canadian students a year to go abroad for study and cultural exchanges, service learning and other experiential learning activities by 2022.
Global experiences give us perspective. They help our young people understand Canada’s place in the world and their place in Canada. International study helps develop the culturally aware employees that industry needs.
More importantly, these experiences nurture compassionate, globally literate, adaptable young adults who are ready to take their place in the world. And that’s what Canada needs.