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Global Skills Opportunity program launches across Canada

Universities and colleges are hoping to send students from non-traditional backgrounds to work and study abroad.


In 2018, international students spent nearly $21.6 billion on tuition in Canada, having contributed an estimated 40 per cent of all Canadian tuition fees over a 10-year period. This is one rather obvious reason why Canada has focused its attention on attracting international students. But is the same attention given to Canadian students who seek to study abroad? Not according to Margaret Biggs, who co-chaired a study group in 2017 to find out why.

“There had been a lot of energy put into bringing more international students to Canada, but not really any concrete progress on sending more Canadian students out internationally, despite a number of studies that said we should do this,” said Dr. Biggs, the Matthews Fellow in Global Public Policy at Queen’s University.

The study outlined why global education is foundational to Canada’s future success by equipping Canadian students with the skills and connections needed to succeed in a digital, connected and global economy. It issued a warning that Canada was not preparing its students to meet the rapidly changing world and called for a meaningful investment to ensure Canadian students study abroad. That call has recently been answered with the launch of the Global Skills Opportunity program.

The initiative, administered jointly by Colleges and Institutes Canada and Universities Canada (the publisher of University Affairs), is a national outbound student mobility program, that will provide $95 million over a three-and-a-half-year period to colleges and universities. It will enable approximately 16,000 college and undergraduate students to work or study overseas, with particular emphasis on non-traditional destinations. The program, while open to all students, targets groups that have not traditionally had these opportunities: Indigenous students, students from low-income backgrounds and those with disabilities.

‘Providing equal opportunities’

Azul Hernandez-Billy, president of Thompson Rivers University Students’ Union, believes that creating a more inclusive study abroad program for Canadian students is a positive step.

“As someone who identifies as an Indigenous person, I believe this program is a great idea in the sense that it is providing equal opportunities for those that wouldn’t necessarily have access to experiences like this,” said Ms. Hernandez-Billy. “It is important to create spaces for these people that have fought to be recognized and included.”

That sentiment was echoed by Vinitha Gengatharan, the executive director of York international at York University. The equal opportunity initiative is “the biggest piece for us,” she said. “In an increasingly competitive global marketplace, this program is one way we can ensure that students who would not otherwise have a global experience have the opportunity to gain those skills.”

But what are those skills, exactly? According to Dr. Biggs, who was part of the advisory group for Global Skills Opportunity, it goes far beyond subject-matter knowledge. That, she said, can be learned. “To really succeed in the future workplace you need critical thinking, problem solving, resilience, adaptability and the ability to work with different kinds of people.”

Such skills are developed or enhanced through an international education. Often referred to as “soft skills,” and more recently as “durable skills,” these competencies have become even more valuable to employers since the start of the pandemic. A Canadian survey conducted in December 2020 revealed that 73 per cent of companies value durable skills more than ever.

Building skills, building connections

Leah Nord, senior director of workforce strategies and inclusive growth at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, emphasized how these skills are key to future success in a digital work environment.

“Whether it is a soft skill, durable skill or intercultural competency, it will be key going forward,” she said. “Being able to work with people from different backgrounds was important before […] but the pandemic has accelerated the need for these skills, especially from a remote work context in which we can now connect with colleagues from around the world.”

The future of the remote workforce is still being determined in Canada, with organizations beginning to execute their return-to-office, hybrid or fully remote work policies. But the speed at which the global and digital economy is accelerating is unlikely to change. “It is a velocity issue, it is a digital issue, and it is a global issue,” said Dr. Biggs. “People who are better able to adapt, to move quickly and to work with others will really be at a premium.”

Skills, however, are not the singular goal of the program. Building connections across borders and strengthening international research networks and innovation ecosystems will also be fundamental to Canada’s future success, said Jim Stanford, a Canadian labour economist and director at the Centre for Future Work.

“The Global Skills Opportunity program will strengthen those international links for the next generation of Canadian academics and professionals and will expand our national capacity to participate in future innovation and knowledge creation,” said Dr. Stanford. “By providing Canadian students with more international experience and connections, this program will notably enhance their capacity to launch their own careers with a close eye on a changing world.”

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