A diploma won’t cut it: Why the government needs to support global education for Canada’s future

Today’s university graduates have a tough job ahead of them.

As the future leaders of Canada, students will need to utilize the skills they’ve acquired during their years at university to overcome the many significant and complex challenges Canada will face in the years to come. Luckily, Canada houses some of the most reputable postsecondary institutions, academics and facilities in the world, which provide students with a high-quality education in a variety of fields.

But the truth is, the world is changing far too quickly for traditional classroom education to keep up with. This isn’t to say that obtaining a university or college degree isn’t valuable; but to be successful in the twenty-first century and compete in today’s incredibly competitive job market, graduates will need to have much more than a university diploma. Gone are the days when an undergraduate degree alone was enough to secure a well-paying job and a life of benefits and stability.

Following Brexit and the 2016 American presidential election, many parts of the world are experiencing political shifts resulting in economic change, ethnocentric mentalities and a rise in discrimination, prejudice and xenophobia. If Canada wishes to remain a country that values diversity and fights for equality, internationalization is key. Giving students the opportunity to learn and work internationally will achieve this, and equip them with the global knowledge, cultural sensitivities and international experiences needed to thrive in our increasingly interconnected world. But as it stands, only a mere fraction of the Canadian student population will have the opportunity to acquire these global competencies.

This is the focal point of the new report, Global Education for Canadians: Equipping Young Canadians to Succeed at Home & Abroad, developed by the Study Group on Global Education under the auspices of the University of Ottawa's Centre for International Policy Studies and the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. Published in early November, the report shows that Canada is falling far behind other countries in terms of outbound student mobility, and calls for the Government of Canada to take initiative by providing adequate funding for students who wish to pursue studies, research or work placements abroad.

Unlike other countries such as France, Germany, Australia and the U.S., Canada currently does not have a strategic approach, plan or initiative in place to ensure Canadian students acquire international education – something that is vitally important in today’s global-knowledge economy. The report urges Canada to make global education a national priority – not only for the sake of students’ learning, but for the sake of the nation’s future.

The benefits of international education – for students and employers

The Liberal government has made it clear from the beginning that they value Canada’s youth – which was not only demonstrated through Prime Minister Trudeau’s self-appointment as Canada’s Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs and Youth. In Budget 2017, the government committed $221 million over five years to provide an additional 10,000 work-integrated learning placements for post-secondary students to ensure they have opportunities to “build their résumés and build a network of professional contacts.” This investment in Canada’s future leaders is commendable, but not exhaustive.

International mobility programs are a form of work-integrated learning, yet they are not treated as such in the eyes of the government. While there are countless benefits to participating in a work-integrated learning program such as a co-op or internship, going abroad to study, work or volunteer often provides students with far more “real world” experience and helps them develop very unique skills which are harder to acquire through a regular work placement.

The benefits of obtaining international experience are well documented. Students who participate in global education return with higher confidence, curiosity and decisiveness; acquire strong problem-solving skills, communication skills and cultural sensitivity; and develop adaptability, resilience and a tolerance for ambiguity. Not to mention global knowledge, awareness and understanding.

Canadian employers have also reported that these are the skills and capabilities they look for when recruiting new employees, in addition to – or even in place of – workplace experience. In one recent study, over 80 per cent of employers who seek to recruit and hire individuals with cross-cultural knowledge believed these employees increase their firm’s competitiveness. In another study, almost 40 per cent of companies admitted that they had previously been unable to take advantage of international business opportunities because they lacked personnel with international experience and competencies.

It is hardly surprising, then, that international education is also associated with higher employment rates and larger salaries for graduates. Employers recognize that these global skills – which cannot be gained through on-the-job training – will significantly help to launch their business forward.

Costs are a huge barrier to student participation

Despite these obvious advantages, a measly 11 per cent of Canadian undergraduate students partake in international mobility programs at their university over the course of their degree. Yet, data shows that 97 per cent of Canadian universities offer these opportunities, including study-abroad programs, international work placements or volunteer missions. If the opportunities are available and the benefits are multitudinous, why aren’t students going abroad?

Ask this question to any university student and they surely won’t hesitate in their response: the costs are just too high. Tuition fees for a Canadian university degree have continuously risen each year since 2010, and many students simply don’t have the monetary resources to travel abroad for their studies. This not only prevents them from reaping the many benefits of international learning, but also reinforces the traditional notion that study abroad programs are only beneficial – or even possible – for students from affluent families.

Universities will argue that the costs of studying abroad are comparable to those associated with studying here in Canada. After all, these programs allow students to pay the same tuition to study for a semester in Australia, Italy or China as they would for a semester at their home university. But this claim does not take into consideration the fact that over half of all full-time post-secondary students in Canada also have part-time jobs to fund their studies. Leaving work for an entire semester to study overseas isn’t always possible for part-time working students, and it means living without an income for a four-month period, which could compromise paying rent or buying groceries for some students.

Students can’t afford to gain international experience on their own; and yet, Canada can’t afford for them not to. During a time of significant global change – including shifts in the workforce, political and economic uncertainty, and a rise in intolerance and discrimination around the world – global education is needed now more than ever before.

Canadian students who travel abroad return to Canada as global citizens. They acquire global perspectives and recognize the importance of working together with other nations to overcome global challenges. They develop cultural sensitivities and understand that diverse perspectives are not only desired, but required, to solve the world’s most complex problems.

If Canada wants to continue to be a true global leader, students need to be given the opportunity to become global leaders, too.