This op-ed was published in the Montreal Gazette on December 1, 2016.
By Nicolas Chapuis, ambassador of France to Canada and Suzanne Fortier, principal and vice-chancellor of McGill University
Canada’s prosperity has long been dependent on an educated population. Today, that’s not quite enough. To be globally competitive, Canada needs its newest graduates to arrive in the workforce equipped with international skills and experiences.
Today’s university students are globally minded. They learn, debate and strike up friendships with thousands of international students during their time on campus.
So why do so few Canadians travel as part of their educational experience?
It’s not for want of opportunities. Ninety-seven per cent of Canadian universities offer study-abroad options. The students who go call their studies transformative, saying the experience helped them build confidence, opened their perspectives and contributed to career advancement.
About eight per cent of McGill University students study outside of Canada each year. Canada-wide, only 3.1 per cent of full-time undergraduates take part in a study-abroad experience annually (about 25,000), even though employers increasingly seek new hires with international skills and awareness.
Canada needs to nurture a culture of student mobility. A classroom cannot replace immersion in daily life in France, for instance. Most importantly, the discussions we have, whether in philosophy or economics, literature or politics, depend on our perspective. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing.”
McGill’s Canadian Field Studies in Africa program shifted the perspective of recent graduate Siobhan “Chevy” Lazenby, who travelled to Kenya and Tanzania. “Everything that I had heard in the classroom, I finally learned in the field.” she says. “The experiences during this semester — and the reflection that followed — shifted what matters to me, re-shaped my values and taught me more about privilege than I ever could have learned in a lecture hall.”
Employers see the value of having staff members with a cross-cultural understanding and knowledge of the global marketplace. And for good reason; about 60 per cent of Canada’s GDP is a result of international trade. To maintain and grow those trade relationships, a better understanding of the world is required.
Canada and France, for example, have an enduring relationship and understanding: a shared history, cooperation on governance of social issues and on international files, and membership in La Francophonie. But France is now worried that its attractions are lessening for younger cohorts of Canadians.
Last year, under a special youth mobility agreement between France and Canada, young French people snapped up 14,000 visas to allow them to work or study in Canada — in just one day. Another 11,900 students applied for regular Canadian study visas. But a mere 2,500 Canadian students and young professionals took advantage of the agreement between the two countries to go the other way. With fewer Canadian students travelling to the country than 20 years ago, our relationship could weaken simply because there will be fewer Canadians who understand France.
In an effort to find new ways to break down those barriers, we joined the ambassadors of Germany and Mexico on Tuesday for a productive roundtable discussion on the importance of studying abroad and what our respective governments are doing to support student mobility.
We need to step up our game to encourage an ongoing exchange of education, culture and understanding. Universities Canada is recommending that the federal government invest in international mobility opportunities that will benefit 50,000 Canadian students per year by 2022. Such an investment, which the federal panel on Canada’s international education strategy recommended in 2012, would help equip our students for the challenges ahead.
As a truly global nation, Canada cannot afford to turn inward. Giving its young people the opportunities to learn and build relationships abroad is essential to its global future.
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