Making the next wave of Canadian students more globally minded

International Development Studies is a lesser-known area of study in Canada, but new research shows such education is a great way to prepare the next generation of globally-minded professionals for the workforce. 

By: , , /
September 11, 2018
York campus
Students walk through the York University campus in Toronto. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

Almost two million Canadian students went back to campus this past week — those looking for their education to lead to an international career have a range of options to choose from. 

International Development Studies (IDS) is one of the fastest growing programs in Canadian universities, with over a thousand new graduates each year. According to the Canadian Association for the Study of International Development (CASID), there are 12 universities offering Master’s degrees, one college offering a post-graduate certificate, and approximately 23 undergraduate programs in Canada. Over the past six years, four Canadian universities have introduced PhD programs in IDS.

IDS is a broad, interdisciplinary field that cuts across traditional academic boundaries in areas of study related to global social, cultural, economic and political change. Students focus on the causes and consequences of poverty and inequality in the world and also have opportunities for hands-on learning at home and abroad.

Preparing the next generation of global leaders requires a comprehensive understanding of the changes facing the world today as well as strong intercultural communication skills. With growing calls for Canadian universities to equip a future workforce with this knowledge and skillset, and to enhance international learning opportunities, a recent research project on the career paths and citizenship activities of IDS graduates offers important new insight. 

Encouraged by the results of the research, we believe more work is needed to address the dearth of research on the education and career paths of globally-minded students and young professionals — with the goal of providing the best possible opportunities for Canada’s next generation of professionals and globally-engaged citizens.

Supported by a steering committee from members of CASID and the Canadian Consortium for College and University Programs in International Development Studies (and led by the University of Ottawa’s Rebecca Tiessen and Dalhousie University’s John Cameron, two of the authors of this piece), the project set out to better understand how IDS education in Canada impacts the subsequent careers of its graduates and their trajectories from university into professional careers and roles as citizens.

Graduates of 14 IDS programs across Canada from 1980 to 2015 were asked questions such as: are you happy with your career and income? What sector are you working in? What pathway did you take to reach professional employment? What skills and competencies helped you find employment? How do you engage with the world outside of Canada’s borders?

The final report, based on 1,901 responses, found that IDS graduates have found well-paying, satisfying, professional jobs in a wide range of fields — in Canada and around the world. At the time of the survey, 86 percent of IDS graduates were employed, and just 4.8 percent were unemployed and looking for work. In total, 40 percent of IDS grads earned over $60,000 and 65 percent earned over $40,000. These figures are promising given the early career stages of most of the respondents. Over 80 percent of IDS grads were satisfied or very satisfied with their career trajectories.

Survey respondents were also highly educated, with most pursuing education and/or training beyond a Bachelor’s degree, and directly linked their education in IDS to lifestyle factors and values related to global citizenship.

"IDS graduates participated in study abroad programs at a rate roughly three times the national university average."

This last finding is an important one, particularly in light of a recent report by the Study Group on Global Education — a group of educational leaders, business executives and policy experts co-chaired by Roland Paris and Margaret Biggs — that warns Canada is falling behind its peers when it comes to international education, with ramifications across our society on the economy, politics and culture. The report calls for a new emphasis on global learning and a new national initiative to send 30,000 students abroad over the next decade. In other words, governments and universities in Canada need to invest now in programs that will help students to develop the cross-cultural communication skills that are increasingly necessary for collaboration in the private and public sectors to address the world’s most pressing challenges.

So where does IDS fit in when it comes to enhancing global education in Canada? The survey found that IDS graduates participated in study abroad programs at a rate roughly three times the national university average.

Similarly, they engaged in a variety of experiential learning programs, which combine workplace or volunteer placements with classroom-based reflection and analysis, at a rate nearly 50 percent greater than the national average. A range of recent studies directly links experiential learning to improved education, professional and citizenship outcomes. 

Participation in these programs appears to have impacted graduates’ employment trajectories, with roughly half of respondents reporting they have worked abroad since graduation, and the vast majority linking their education to a range of community engagement activities with a significant global dimension.

These results paint a clear picture of IDS graduates as successful, highly-educated and generally meaningfully-employed Canadians. While successful professionally, what also emerges is that IDS graduates engage more often and more substantively as active global citizens; something that in today’s climate of democratic malaise and rapid social and economic transformation must surely be a priority for any post-secondary institution and, as the recent Study Group of Global Education report points out, any nation.

This frequency and depth of participation in experiential learning activities, combined with a rigorous and challenging interdisciplinary curriculum and systematic analysis and reflection, equips IDS graduates with the skills, competencies and tools to not only embrace a diverse and rapidly changing world but to actively and critically engage in its democratic transformation.

At the same time, the IDS Career Paths report also highlights the significant challenges that IDS graduates experience in breaking into the professional job market, despite possessing many of the skills and aptitudes that the Study Group on Global Education calls for. Evidence in the report makes clear that international learning experiences on their own do not give IDS graduates a significant leg up in the job market: writing skills, second language skills, computer skills, networking skills, and the previous experience are all crucial — as is the capacity to articulate these skills in ways that resonate with employers.

Nevertheless, the results of this project point to IDS graduates as not only ahead of the curve when it comes to global learning and intercultural understanding, but also suggests that IDS students, and IDS programs, are well placed to contribute to the design and implementation of an ambitious Canadian strategy for global education. The report of the Study Group on Global Education emphasizes the need to increase international learning opportunities, but insights from the IDS Career Paths research also highlight the need for curriculum design and other supports in order for students to bridge from their university education to professional careers and roles as globally-engaged citizens. While the future is perhaps uncertain, it will undoubtedly be more globally interconnected than ever, brimming with opportunity and seeking those able to lead us towards a more prosperous and inclusive world.