Visiting China in February, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Chinese leaders made an astonishing announcement: they agreed to find ways to send 100,000 students to study in each other’s country within five years. That’s a laudable goal given the importance of China to Canada’s future. And their joint communiqué went further, noting the ”œparticular need to encourage more Canadian students to study in China.”

Right again. At the moment, the academic exchange traffic is mostly one way. About 60,000 Chinese are already studying in Canada.

The number of Canadian students in China?

A mere 2,000.

And the problem isn’t just with China. Only about 3% of Canadian university students and 1% of college students study abroad, while a third of Germans do.

Let’s accept as a given that a 21st century trading nation like Canada needs to give its educated class more global exposure. The nation benefits from the human capital gained " academic and scientific networks, and future business and trading partners " and from the international perspective and insight that lead to innovation at home.

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Developing and emerging countries " China and Brazil, for example " send thousands of their students abroad with the aim of harnessing foreign intellectual capital to advance their own science and technology sectors and to bolster their economy. Numerous developed countries, notably the European Union and constituent countries, believe that study abroad experiences for their citizens are critical to national development and prosperity. The groundbreaking Erasmus scholarship program is now 25 years old, continues to support annually 230,000 EU citizens to study in another EU country and has assisted nearly 3 million students since inception.

As Sean Riley, president of St. Francis Xavier University, put it: ”œI’d take the number of students that have a significant international exposure and multiply it by 10 or 20. I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think we actually have a global mindset.”

So how to catch up?

Our research identified three major impediments to study abroad by Canadians:

  • The cost;
  • Academic programs that have little flexibility and a dearth of champions among faculty;
  • Fear of the unknown, of leaving friends, and fear of falling behind academically.

One solution that answers each of these concerns is to require every student to fulfill a study abroad experience as part of their undergraduate degree or diploma programs. To achieve the goal, institutions would broaden the definition of study abroad for credit to encompass service learning, guided research, field schools, internship, work abroad related to the student’s future career and other categories of foreign exposure. They would also ease up on regulations such as those that make only electives, not core courses, eligible for study abroad credit.

In tandem with these academic requirements, institutions would help students find the added money they need to participate: help them fundraise, get alumni to support a grants fund, persuade good corporate citizens to support groups of students and seek co-financing from governments as recommended  by the Advisory Panel on Canada’s International Education Strategy in its report released in August. The plan won’t work unless government and the private sector step up and invest.

This isn’t a draft or national service. Exceptions could be made in the event that a student was unable to travel for compelling personal reasons. But students who sought exemptions would have to compensate by taking a global studies or internationally oriented course.

Going from a small percentage of Canadians with overseas experience to almost 100% is an ambitious national project, requiring raising Canadian students in a different academic culture. But the world is changing around us. This is one way to change with it.


Karen McBride is president and CEO of the Canadian Bureau for International Education.