International education the missing piece of Canada’s innovation agenda

by Alex Paterson. Posted July 23, 2012


When asked why they would want to study abroad, most Canadian university or college students give a variation on the following answer:

“It will broaden my horizons, I will make new friends, and I will have fun becoming a global citizen.”

All great things, all true in their own way – but all miss the bigger picture.

A growing body of literature, much originating in Australia (a country with a very significant international education component to its economy), has made the link between study abroad and national innovation performance. The proposition is simple: when students travel abroad during their post-secondary education years, they participate in an economic process that fuses countries, markets, sectors and people together in a productive exchange of ideas and practices, yielding tangible economic benefits.

In short: they do a lot more than make friends.

The key is social capital – the process of cultivating and deriving economic benefit from new environments, experiences and networks. Literature on the concept directly links it to innovation performance. Societies that are innovative place a high premium on social capital building experiences. Right now, the ability to develop social capital is not a skill that Canadian educators and policymakers seem to prioritize and as a result we are suffering from low innovation scores across the board.

Historically, the flow of the international students has been predominantly uni-directional.

Developing economies – think China, India, Brazil and some African nations – happily send their bumper-crops of young students overseas with the hope that higher standards in education, language proficiency and increased market opportunity will yield long-run, national economic prosperity.

Developed economies compete to attract these incoming students. Canada and the US have excelled at this, and it’s no mystery as to why: international students typically contribute anywhere between $6 and $10 billion annually to our economy. The recent South American tour by Canadian university presidents – accompanied by Governor General David Johnson and AUCC President Paul Davidson – underscores how seriously we take this business (though this has not stopped us losing ground to newcomers in the business, such as Australia).

But, given the benefits of study abroad, isn’t it time we placed greater emphasis on sending our own young people out to increase their own understanding and help them develop global ties? Developed economies need the innovation benefits of study abroad too. Were we to do so, we would be far from the front of the pack. Around 33% of German students study abroad. The figure for France is in the mid-20s – heck, even the United States sends 11% of its students overseas, so language cannot be the barrier.

The figure for Canada? An anemic 3%. Each year, only 50,000 Canadian university, college or polytechnique students travel overseas – a mobility rate that has shown no signs of growth over the past 10 years.

Yes, Canada is one of the top destinations for international students choosing to spend time abroad during their studies. Among all OECD countries, Canada has a stay-rate of 33%, which is 8% higher than the OECD average and means that more students who come to study in Canada, stay in Canada afterwards. But when it comes to Canadian students packing their bags and spending time abroad? We’re missing out – big time.

And what’s incredibly frustrating for Canadian policymakers, NGOs and academics interested in turning these low-mobility rates around is that countless surveys reveal a near unanimous level of support for study abroad. When asked if international education would be something they would pursue, Canadian students respond with a decisive ‘Yes’. Even their parents, university administrators and other members of a student’s sphere of influence sing its praises.

So there’s a disconnect. This tells us two things:

First, something – whether cost, safety, time commitment, quality of education, logistics, or other external or internal factors – is stopping students from fulfilling their study abroad goals.

Second, Canada is failing to leverage the partnerships it has developed as a recipient country for international students. Being among the top study destinations among OECD partners implies an extensive network of partnerships with international institutions and programs. Why are Canada’s educators not better at turning inbound student flows into better, easier-accessed opportunities for their own outbound students?

Both must be addressed.

The federal government has a unique role to play in incentivizing study abroad, whether it be through dedicated funds distributed through existing granting councils, or a simple show of leadership by publicly making international study a national priority.

The good news is that in supporting international education, the government can also stand behind its own stated priorities. Programs and subsidies can be geared towards specific countries and needs. Certainly as Canada pivots to meet Asia’s rise, a cornerstone of our engagement strategy should include exposing more Canadian students to the rapidly developing markets in China, India and South Korea.

Canada must act fast to fit in this missing piece of our innovation puzzle. Without it, we will continue to miss out on the global economies of the 21st century.