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While the number of enrolled international students is on the rise, why are Canadian university students so reluctant to study abroad?

Even though the University of Ottawa recently experienced a significant drop in the Times Higher Education rank, the school remains an attractive prospect for international students.

In fact, based on information from a recent article by the CBC, it seems the inflow of international students is at its highest rate yet this fall, with 1,350 new international students registered by Sept 19.

Of course, this increase is not relegated to the U of O alone. According to the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE) there were 336,497 international students (at all levels, including primary, secondary, and post-secondary) enrolled in Canada in 2014, the same year then federal international trade minister Ed Fast announced a Canada-wide strategy to double international student enrolment. Data pulled from Citizen and Immigration Canada says this represents a 10 per cent increase over the previous year, an 83 per cent increase since 2008.

Unfortunately, Canadian students don’t seem compelled to return the favour.

According to Universities Canada, despite the numerous opportunities and great programs that are widely available, only 3.1 per cent of full-time Canadian undergraduate university students annually have a for-credit or not-for-credit education abroad experience.

When they do decide to take advantage of these opportunities, most Canadian students will choose the nearest possible geographic option. Of the 45,813 Canadians who are studying in full degree programs abroad, over half went to the United States.

But why is there such a significant imbalance between the inflow and outflow of exchange students from Canada? Now that International Education Week is among us, The Fulcrum has investigated some of the most common explanations in a bit more detail in the hopes of getting to the bottom of this educational unevenness.

Financial barriers: real or imaginary?

In early October, local Canadian students were given the opportunity to take a look at the international opportunities offered to them when the Study and Go Abroad student expo came to Ottawa. Throughout this one-day event, Canadian students got to meet with top universities from around the world and talk about the ins and outs of studying abroad.

But how likely is the target audience to follow up on this one-day event?

The Fulcrum approached several random students for their feedback on these programs, and while many of them expressed interest, the majority admitted they were unlikely to take advantage of them because of perceived “financial barriers”.

The existence and predominance of this concern was confirmed by CBIE, who identify factors like general interest and academic concerns as runners-up.

However, despite these widespread concerns, worrying about the cost of studying abroad is largely a non-issue.

Education up to the end of a Master’s degree is actually quite affordable for Canadians and EU citizens in many European countries. 

In fact, according to Minister-Counsellor Manfred Auster, Head of Political and Public Affairs at the European Union Delegation in Canada, “most study programs for European countries are either free or subsidized, so financial matters should not be the limiting factor.”

Unless you go for a pricey education in somewhere like Sweden, Denmark, or the Netherlands, tuition ranges from free to $4,500 Canadian per semester, something these countries manage with a little help from its loyal taxpayers.

This value extends to visiting Canadian students, who might be charged for tuition in English, but the value is still negligible compared to what they are used to in North American institutions.

Nobody knows this better than Gabriel Verret, who is a U of O graduate and current University of Western Australia postdoc in the field of mathematics. He also happened to obtain his Ph.D. by studying in the small European country of Slovenia.

“Obviously, there are costs involved with moving, staying abroad and so on, and these must be covered, either by the students themselves or through various subsidies,” said Verret.

“I think that overall, the benefits are well worth it. More people having studied abroad means more open minds, more understanding between people from different countries, and so on.”

This symbiotic cost-to-benefit relationship is increasingly acknowledged by both host and origin countries, who aim to increase international mobility through various opportunities for financial support.

The most obvious option are scholarships and fellowship opportunities from the host, which are plentiful.

Financial assistance for international endeavours can also be found in our home country. In 2012, The Advisory Panel on Canada’s International Education Strategy recommended that 50,000 study abroad awards should be offered to Canadian students per year by 2022.

So, if money isn’t quite the deal-breaker Canadian students often believe it to be, what else could possibly stand in their way?

Lost in translation

A less common, but possibly more founded, worry among Canadian students is that they have to contend with being educated in a culture that is completely foreign to their own.

Adapting to a new language and culture can certainly be a very new concept to Canadian students, particularly those with no travel experience.

Having lived in a number of countries where English was not the predominant language, including Cameroon and India during his youth, Verret says that, in his experiences, these concerns are somewhat legitimate, especially when it comes to language.

“I never did learn much Slovene but, on the other hand, it was very easy to get by in English, especially in an academic setting.”

You may wonder, then, why so many non-English, non-French speaking international students choose to flock into Canada for a far less-affordable post-secondary education in the first place?

In Verret’s words, “I think that many students go abroad to learn or solidify their understanding of a language. English is very popular for obvious reasons and this makes countries where English is a first language more attractive.”

In fact, this dynamic not only promotes broader notions of cultural understanding, but it also makes these programs more approachable for newbies studying abroad.

The increasing flow of cultures and desire to promote international exchange largely encourages several universities abroad to include English-language study programmes, although these are sometimes charged slightly higher.

According to Auster, this seems to be working. “There might be some language and culture-related concerns, but most European universities (now) offer programs in English.”

Closed-minded Canadian mindset

So if the top two barriers to stop Canadian students from studying abroad are largely imaginary, why the widespread reluctance?

Well, possibly the most important factor holding back young Canadian study-abroad candidates is one that they aren’t aware of.

“It’s just not part of the (Canadian) culture to study abroad.” says Urs Obrist, who serves as a Science, Education, and Research Officer at the Swiss Embassy in Ottawa.

This idea is reinforced by Swedish Embassy communications staff member Maria Devlin who states that: “European youth (are) acquainted with the idea of travelling as an enriching and valuable experience from an early age. In Canada, travelling is not quite as much of a habit.”

Devlin’s children happen to be enrolled in the Canadian education system, so she is able to witness this cultural dynamic first-hand.

“Canadian schools, on the other hand, are very focused on teaching Canadian culture in every aspect of the curriculum,” said Devlin, stating that this mentality applies to subjects such as history, politics, and literature in particular. “This makes it difficult for youth to picture or even consider life abroad.”

Verret agrees with this concept, especially when compared to the programs on display overseas.

“In Europe, there are already many popular exchange programmes, like Erasmus,” he said, referring to a 27-year-old program that allows EU citizens to study at another European university partnered with their own for a part of their degree. Not only do they receive full credits towards their degree for the completed courses, they are also exempt from tuition fees, and receive additional funding to cover living expenses.

“Because of this (program), I think most European students already have the idea of studying abroad at the forefront of their mind. From there, it is not a huge mental leap to at least consider going to Canada.”

“On the other hand, I think that most Canadian students simply go to the closest university that has a program that they want to study. The idea of going further simply for the experience is not very common.”

Of course, this limited mobility is exacerbated by the rising cost of tuition in Canada, which is scaring more and more students to study closer to home.

Promoting mobility

From this exploration, it becomes clear that many of the deterrents that keep our youth from embarking on an international educational experience are largely imaginary or based on misconceptions.

But since there are already so many nation-wide efforts by our government to promote international student mobility, predominantly through financial and informative support, where is Canada falling behind?

Several other developed countries are taking concrete action to “internationalize” their next generation. These programs include the 100,000 Strong Initiative in the U.S., the Erasmus program in the EU, and the 2014 New Colombo Plan in Australia.

Being aware of the critically low international mobility of Canadian students, organizations such as CBIE are involved in a number of initiatives to support study abroad, including public awareness, professional development, resources for outbound students, and other activities. CBIE’s efforts also include the establishment of an Education Abroad Advisory Committee in 2014.

But after a lack of any considerable change, it’s clear that more needs to be done.

Régine Legault-Bouchard, the manager and senior advisor at the U of O International office, believes that the answer lies in replicating what has already worked overseas.

“Europeans benefit from the Erasmus framework, which funds student mobility. It’s in their DNA. For many Europeans universities, an international exchange is mandatory as part of their program of study. Canada would definitely benefit from a nation-wide engagement similar to what Europe offers.”

Auster, on the other hand, puts some blame at the feet of EU countries as a host.

“I believe European institutions should be encouraged and make a bigger effort to promote their programs if we wish to attract more Canadian youth.”

As for Verret, he likes to think that the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

“Probably a mix of more publicity and visibility, as well as more actual programmes and options would be needed.”

Despite conflicting claims about who is to blame for this imbalance, Verret remains convinced of one thing: the positive influence of international exchange programs. 

“Do it! Travelling and, even more so, living abroad is an experience that can make one grow in ways that might not be possible otherwise. It exposes one to different cultures, ways of thinking, and doing it as a student is arguably one of the best ways to go about it.”