Listen Now

Make International Education a Two-Way Street

Relatively few Canadian students study abroad and it’s hurting Canada’s global engagement, argues Karen McBride.

By: /
31 July, 2014
By: Karen McBride
President and CEO of the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE)

CBIE commends the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE) for including an international dimension in its Taking Action for Canada: Jobs and Skills for the 21st Century initiative through commissioning, in partnership with the Canadian International Council (CIC), Bernard Simon’s recent report on Canada’s International Education Strategy.

Simon’s report, entitled Canada’s International Education Strategy: Time for a fresh curriculum, provides a very interesting and important perspective on the Government of Canada’s International Education Strategy launched in January 2014. Entitled Harnessing our knowledge advantage to drive innovation and prosperity, the government’s strategy focuses on international students, addressing the skills gap and benefitting the economy, as well as society as a whole. For this, the government should be applauded. It has set an ambitious target of doubling the number of international students—to 450,000—by 2022, and CBIE is committed to helping achieve this target.

However, as highlighted by Simon’s piece, inbound mobility of international students is only one piece of a comprehensive international education approach. Equally important is outbound mobility. We need to support Canadian students to study/research/work abroad so that we give our next generation of leaders the capacity to succeed in today’s globalized environment. Where, for example, more than 30 percent of German students go abroad during their studies—and there is a concerted effort to increase this to 50 percent—it is estimated that only a miniscule 3 percent of Canadian students participate in their Canadian home university or college exchange programs. This is proving to be the Achilles’ heel in Canada’s aspirations for greater global engagement.

Canada should follow the United States’ lead in making international education a national priority in strengthening bilateral relations. President Obama personally announced the 100,000 Strong Initiative with China, which is now an independent non-profit foundation that has attracted students from across the United States to undertake a semester or more at Chinese educational institutions. Building on its success, the President recently announced a similar program with Latin America. When Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited China in February 2012, he, too, made an announcement with Chinese leaders to send 100,000 students to study in each other’s country over the next five years. Yet there have been no additional resources or initiatives to support this announcement. Moreover, whereas in 2012 more than 80,000 Chinese students were in Canada, just over 3,000 Canadian students were studying China, a lopsided picture that our Chinese education partners unhappily reference. Another example is Australia’s New Colombo Plan, wherein the government has committed $100 million over five years to augment Australian students’ ability to work in Indo-Pacific region. Importantly, the plan supports not only year-long study and semester-long internships, but also provides grants for shorter term opportunities that are often more feasible for a broader range of students. It even includes language training options so that participants can build linguistic and cultural competencies, allowing them to more effectively engage with their regional partners.

Many of the benefits of international experience are well-known: knowledge of best practices in various fields, awareness of global perspectives, capacity to navigate across cultures, as well as adaptability and flexibility. In addition, according to research commissioned by CBIE’s sister society in Asia, students surveyed indicated improvement is areas such as strategic visioning, leadership, communications, planning, team-work and analysis. In a similar vein, CBIE recently conducted a survey among Canadian alumni of study abroad programs, and preliminary results show that 88 percent of respondents believe that their education abroad experiences have contributed significantly to their career achievement to date.

All of these benefits are important to the individual. But they are equally important to Canadian businesses—and Canada’s economy as a whole—in order to be competitive internationally. The Government of Canada’s Global Markets Action Plan (December 2013) calls for engagement in priority markets where Canadian business needs to grows its presence and there are relatively few existing ties. Where will the competence to develop and nurture partnerships in these markets come from if Canadians’ knowledge and capacities have not been intentionally fostered?

Where to from here? I have previously suggested that all Canadian students should have an international education experience and maintain that this should be the ultimate goal. In the short-term, the Government of Canada should make a significant start towards the Advisory Panel on Canada`s International Education Strategy’s recommendation to introduce an international mobility program for Canadians that serves 50,000 students annually by 2022. This will take concerted effort—from the federal and provincial governments, from secondary and post-secondary institutions across the country, from the corporate sector, from students and from the international education sector as a whole. But it is achievable—and imperative.

The Government of Canada has taken the first—and important—steps with its International Education Strategy. In a recent interview, the Hon. Ed Fast, Minister of International Trade, stated that the strategy is dynamic and will build over time. As we proceed down the road ahead, let’s ensure it’s paved in both directions and addresses Canada’s challenge to engage globally.

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 


Journalism in Canada has suffered a devastating decline over the last two decades. Dozens of newspapers and outlets have shuttered. Remaining newsrooms are smaller. Nowhere is this erosion more acute than in the coverage of foreign policy and international news. It’s expensive, and Canadians, oceans away from most international upheavals, pay the outside world comparatively little attention.

At Open Canada, we believe this must change. If anything, the pandemic has taught us we can’t afford to ignore the changing world. What’s more, we believe, most Canadians don’t want to. Many of us, after all, come from somewhere else and have connections that reach around the world.

Our mission is to build a conversation that involves everyone — not just politicians, academics and policy makers. We need your help to do so. Your support helps us find stories and pay writers to tell them. It helps us grow that conversation. It helps us encourage more Canadians to play an active role in shaping our country’s place in the world.

Become a Supporter