Higher Education Strategy Associates

Straight Thinking about International Education (4)

As the recent Task Force on International Education earnestly said, international education is about more than attracting fee-paying foreigners; it’s also about sending our own students abroad to gain international experience, learn new languages and cultures, etc., etc.

As we wrap up our international education series, there’s only one problem with this argument: neither institutions not students actually seem to want to commit to the idea.

There’s not a school in the country that won’t tell you how much more international they could be or how many more international opportunities they could create if only they had more money. In fact, they are so committed to this view that they got the AUCC to make government investment in study-abroad for Canadian students one of the five priorities in their pre-budget submission.

Now, I’m all in favour of international education, and generally pro-government investment in higher education, but this seems to me to be one of those “hold on to your wallet” situations. If study-abroad is such a great idea, why do institutions need someone else to pay for it? Surely if it really mattered they could stump up a few million for this, the way they can for, say, sports scholarships, or any one of a hundred other things that have been funded with the extra two billion or so dollars that have gone their way in the last decade.

(To be fair, some have tried to put the squeeze on donors for this, without much luck. Turns out donors – many of whom are business people – don’t put the premium on international experience one might expect.)

AUCC implicitly pushes the idea that study abroad is about gaining knowledge of foreign languages and cultures, and that this is the kind of thing that can help Canada by forging relationships that eventually become trade links. But this – to put it mildly – is wishful thinking. No one keeps statistics on this, but pretty much anyone in study-abroad will tell you that the three most common destinations for study-abroad are the U.S., the U.K. and Australia. HESA’s 2011study of students on internationalization found more or less the same thing: the top two preferred destinations of Canadian students by a long shot were the U.K. and Australia. China and India? They came eleventh and sixteenth on the list, with less than three percent of all mentions between them.

To sum up: study abroad is one of those things Canadian universities like as long as they can get someone else to pay for it, and students agree that it’s an important way to learn about new cultures provided they don’t actually have to learn a new language or go anywhere that feels more foreign than Leeds.

Not promising. Not promising at all.

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