Canada's biggest customer, the United States, is veering towards protectionism. Rising powers are transforming the global economy. Intolerance is on the rise, including in Canada. Technology is revolutionizing the nature of work.
We must prepare young Canadians to meet these challenges. We will need them to build Canada's global connections, expand and diversify our trade relationships, uphold the values of openness and tolerance, and succeed as employees and entrepreneurs in the economy of tomorrow.
International education is part of the answer. Learning abroad – in classrooms or in work trainee-ships – fosters the 21st century skills that Canadian companies say they want in employees: adaptability, resilience, teamwork, intercultural awareness and communication skills. Students who learn abroad are more likely to complete their degrees and graduate with higher grades. Those from disadvantaged backgrounds have the most to gain.
These are the conclusions of an independent group of educational leaders, business executives and policy experts – the Study Group on Global Education – that we co-led. Our report, released on November 8, calls for dramatically increasing the participation of Canadian university and college students in international learning.
Today, relatively few students in Canadian postsecondary institutions gain international experience. In France, approximately 33 percent of undergraduates go abroad for part of their degree. In Germany, the figure is 29 percent. In Australia and the United States, it is 19 and 16 percent, respectively. By contrast, only 11 percent of Canadian undergrads do so.
Another measure – the percentage of Canadians who enroll in foreign universities for their entire degree – places Canada in the middle of the pack, but it is unclear how many of them return home. International learning should be a core element of postsecondary education in Canadian institutions.
Most of Canada's peer countries have launched ambitious strategies to boost participation in global education. The United States, for example, set out in 2009 to increase the number of American students studying in China to 100,000 within five years. Having exceeded that target, there is now a campaign to double the total number of American students studying abroad by 2020. Germany aims to increase the percentage of its students participating in international learning from 29 to 50 percent by 2020. Australia's New Colombo Plan will support 10,000 students per year on academic study, internships and work-placements in other Asia-Pacific countries.
Canada has no such strategy, and it shows. Although Canadian universities and colleges have study-abroad programs, these efforts have not improved Canada's overall performance. Moreover, the vast majority of those who go abroad study in the United States, Western Europe and Australia – and in their native language. We are not equipping them for a more multipolar world.
So what is to be done? First, we need to see global education as an instrument for achieving national priorities, including a dynamic work force, an inclusive and open society, and a country with global connections and influence. International learning benefits not just our students but also our society.
Second, we should set a goal of increasing the percentage of Canadian students who participate in these programs from 11 to 25 percent within 10 years. To help drive this change, the study group calls for a new national initiative – Go Global Canada – to support 15,000 university and college students annually within five years, rising to 30,000 within 10 years.
Creating incentives for students to study and work in emerging countries, including language and cultural training, is also vital. Within a decade, one-half of Go Global Canada participants should be going to emerging countries.
We must also provide targeted support to students who face barriers to participating in international learning programs – including those from less affluent households, the first members of families to enroll in postsecondary education, and Indigenous students – so that all young Canadians have the opportunity to benefit from global education.
Finally, the study group calls for a pan-Canadian partnership to meet these objectives. Federal and provincial governments, university and college administrators, professors and students, and the private sector all have roles to play. However, Ottawa's leadership – as convener, catalyst, and lead investor – is indispensable.
In an increasingly complex and competitive world, we need to invest in our young people. Their future, and Canada's future, depend on it.
This article was first published with The Globe and Mail.