If you look at the current issue of Policy Options, there is a startling claim made in the sub-headline of an article by Universities Australia CEO Belinda Robinson; namely, that “five times as many Australian undergraduates are studying abroad as their Canadian counterparts”. It’s not a claim Robinson herself makes – it seems likely that it’s been added by the editorial staff at Policy Options. The problem is it’s not correct.
The Canadian numbers come from a periodic survey Universities Canada does of its members on internationalization (the last example of this is here). The last time they did the survey they found that 2.6% of students did a “for-credit” international experience, and another 0.5% did a non-credit course: total, 3.1%. That’s if you believe universities can actually keep track of this stuff; my guess is there’s a substantial number who can’t or don’t capture this data well – particularly in those cases where students are arranging foreign experiences on their own, so this number is likely at least a bit of an undercount.
Now, in the aforementioned article Robinson noted that over 16% of Australian students had an overseas experience of some kind. Someone, clearly, took that 16%, divided it by the Canadian 3% and voila! Over 5 times more! Except this is apples and oranges: the Canadian figure refers to students who go abroad in any given year while the Australian figure is the percentage who go abroad at some point in their career. We don’t actually know what percentage of Canadian undergraduates go abroad over the course of their degree. Back in the days when we HESA Towers used to run a national student panel, we found that 8% of current students (in the panel, at any rate, which was skewed to upper-year students and hence should come closer to the Australian picture) had had some kind of exchange experience.
(This is one of those things we could answer pretty easily if Statscan put a question about it in the NGS, or if CUSC put it in their tri-annual surveys of graduating students. Hint hint.)
Wonky figures aside, Australia does seem to have been doing something right over the past few years, having quadrupled its out-bound student flow since 2000, and perhaps Canada should be emulating it. But there is a genuine question here about what the “right” number of students going abroad. What‘s should our target be? I’ve seen serious commentators say we shouldn’t be looking at Australia, but rather Germany, where something like 30% of students go abroad at some point (actually, it’s 30% of “upper-year” students have gone abroad, based on a survey of students – on which measure Canada is, as noted earlier, about 8%).
This strikes me as a bit pie-in-the-sky. For a German student, the marginal cost of studying elsewhere in the EU is fairly low; over two-thirds of undergraduates in Germany already live alone (source – the excellent Eurostudent website), and they have a host of potentially awesome international destinations within a couple of hundred dollars transportation fare by budget airline. In Canada, a greater percentage of students live with their parents, so the average marginal cost is going to be higher, not to mention the fact that most of the international destinations we care about (we’re inconsistent about whether or not to call the US an “international experience”, mostly we mean Europe and Asia) are a couple of thousand dollars away, and unless you live in Toronto or Vancouver, the costs of living abroad on one’s own are likely to be somewhat higher than it is back here. So it’s overall a much more expensive proposition for Canadians than Germans.
And what are the benefits of study abroad? Anything that might justify the extra expense? Well, I’ll get into this in some length over the next couple of days, but ask yourself: when’s the last time you heard about a recent graduate getting or losing a job because of having/not having an international experience? Exactly. Whatever you might be able to get a corporate exec to say re: the need for global competencies blah blah blah, Canadian employers, be they in the private or public sector, simply don’t seem to care that much about international experiences (lest you think I am being harsh on Canada and its complacency in international affairs, I urge everyone to read Andrea Mandell-Campbell’s book Why Mexicans Don’t Drink Molson. Tl:dr: too often Canadians believe the hokey “The World Needs More Canada” line when in fact the reverse is usually true).
I think it will be hard to make the financial case for raising our rate of outbound mobility, simply because neither students nor governments will put money into this kind of project if there aren’t clear signals from the labour market that the return will balance the expense. Instead, study abroad will remain what it too often is now: a holiday somewhere nice. For all the talk of study abroad as an inter-cultural experience, it is striking how many students take their study abroad in the US, the UK, Australia or France: in cultures not dissimilar from their own.
So how can we measure and sell the benefits of study abroad? Tune in tomorrow.