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Margin Notes

Why aren’t students buying into universities’ internationalization efforts?

The benefits of studying abroad just aren’t getting through to them.


In two successive months there have been two surveys released on Canada’s efforts to internationalize higher education. Last month I wrote about the Canadian Bureau of International Education’s annual report, which includes a survey of international students in Canada. That survey offered some interesting insights about the experiences and expectations of these students in Canada, and how that corresponds with universities’ own goals for having them here.

And now this month – today in fact – the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada released its own internationalization survey, this one asking its member institutions about their internationalization activities. The last time AUCC surveyed its members on this issue was in 2006. The two surveys and their reports, taken together, give a fairly good glimpse of where Canada is in terms of adding a “global dimension” to its campuses.

One of the most prominent findings of the AUCC survey is that fully 95 percent of Canadian universities identify internationalization as part of their strategic planning, with 82 percent placing it as one of their top five priorities. In addition, 89 percent of respondents say that the pace of internationalization on campus has accelerated either greatly or somewhat in the past three years.

Universities’ most common top priority for internationalization, perhaps not surprisingly, is undergraduate student recruitment. Forty-five percent of institutions had it as their top priority, while 70 percent placed it among their top five. Other priorities, in roughly descending order, were strategic partnerships with overseas higher education institutions, international research collaboration, international graduate student recruitment, and engagement in international development activities (see Figure 2 at the end).

In terms of their reasons for incorporating an international dimension to their university, 53 percent of responding institutions said the most important reason was to “prepare internationally knowledgeable and interculturally competent graduates.” Other reasons cited included increasing enrolment in specific programs, building strategic alliances, generating revenue and increasing the institution’s profile (see Figure 4).

The survey also found a big variety of institutional structures and arrangements to deliver, support and oversee international activities. At 45 percent of schools, “a single office leads internationalization activities and programs; at the rest, multiple offices lead, either with assistance from a cross-unit coordinating body (28 percent) or independently of each other (23 percent), and four percent have no particular office leads.” This seems to support the contention by Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategy Associates, who recently observed: “One of the first things you realize when studying how institutions deal with the process of internationalization is how fragmented authority actually is in Canadian universities.”

A troubling aspect of the AUCC survey is student mobility – specifically, the continuing low numbers of Canadian students going abroad. According to the survey, just 3.1 percent of full-time undergraduate students participated in an international experience during the 2012-13 academic year, and even fewer (2.6 percent) participated in one for credit. This latter statistic has barely moved from the 2.2 percent who had a for-credit experience in the 2006 survey. “Evidently, despite declared intentions, growth in this area has been very slow,” says the report.

Asked what the institutions see as the barriers to students going abroad, more than half cited lack of funds or financial support, followed by an “inflexible curricula or too-heavy programs” at the home institution, and students’ lack of interest or recognition of benefits to studying abroad.

Clearly, this is an area that needs further study, including a survey of Canadian students about their views on internationalization. Studying abroad clearly isn’t a priority for most of them, which is surprising considering the importance that institutions say they place on internationalization. Why isn’t the message getting across to students about the benefits of this type of experience? And frankly, why aren’t they intrinsically interested in this type of life experience? I would have jumped at the chance to spend a term abroad when I was a student, but those opportunities were few and far between at the time.

What’s more, employers say they value students’ international experiences. A recent survey for AUCC by Leger Marketing found that companies look favourably on graduates who have global experience: 82 percent said employees who possess “cross-cultural knowledge and an understanding of the global marketplace” are an asset and enhance their company’s competitiveness.

So why aren’t students going abroad? Are universities’ communications efforts falling short, or is it not a priority, despite what they said in the survey? Are our governments interested or just paying lip service? Are faculty reinforcing the message about the benefits of internationalization, and if not, why not?

According to the AUCC survey, 80 percent of universities say they actively support faculty efforts to incorporate an international dimension to their work and teaching. However, the report notes: “Faculty willingness to undertake efforts to internationalize teaching and research is partly related to the institutional incentives for doing so.” With respect to how faculty are rewarded for international work or experience in promotion and tenure decisions, “an overwhelming 87 percent of institutions report having no formal guidelines in this matter.”

And what is the role of parents in this? Are they skeptical about the value of their children going abroad? Are they exerting pressure on their children to just finish and find a job?

The other side of the coin is that Canadian students also don’t seem to be benefiting from personal exchanges with the international students already in their midst on campus. The CBIE survey found that 56 percent of international students reported that they do not count Canadian students among their friends here in Canada. This too seems to be a lost opportunity, if not a sad state of affairs.

Source: Canada's Universities in the World: AUCC Internationalization Survey, 2014
Source: Canada’s Universities in the World: AUCC Internationalization Survey, 2014
Source: AUCC
Source: AUCC
Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Alex Usher / December 10, 2014 at 08:35

    Hi Leo,

    Nice piece. Two points, though.

    1) I call BS on the employer survey. The number of employers that genuinely care about intl experience among new employees is tiny. A better question on that survey would be: “have you ever asked about intl experience in a hiring interview”? or “have you ever had a hiring situation where the candidate’s intl experience actually made the difference?” My guess is the resulting numbers will not be very impressive.

    2) There is direct data on the student POV on internationalization. Chek out:

  2. Alaina Evanson / December 10, 2014 at 13:52

    Students do not have funding for studying abroad. This opportunity needs to be 100% funded by the Uni or a sponsor or some kind. Secondly, the study abroad option, if available at all with any kind of funding, usually means the degree will take longer. Study abroad is added on to a degree not part of a degree.
    How will adding a semester to a degree plus adding $$$ to a students overall student loan amount be of great interest students?

  3. Andrew Gow / December 10, 2014 at 13:57

    In my experience, our students might like to study abroad for a term or a year, but most of them simply cannot afford it. Those who live at home would have to find the extra money to pay for accommodation overseas (and airfare). If they are living at home, it is usually because they cannot find the money to pay for separate accommodation in Canada, never mind elsewhere. Moreover, other academic calendars generally don’t align well with ours, eating into students’ top earning periods in summer. I think the entire ‘study abroad/junior year abroad’ paradigm is based on upper-middle-class US college programs — situations in which students are living in dorms at college anyway, and parents might not have to shell out much more for Muffy to live in a dorm in Paris than at Bennington. Canadian university students are in very different situations, by and large. As for foreign students in Canada: many arrive with insufficient English to succeed in classes based on anything but multiple-choice testing, and many lack both the linguistic and the cultural skills to make Canadian friends (a goal they might not even have in any case, so far as I can tell). In both regards, the problem seems to me that university administrators and faculty members are projecting their own priorities, interests and values onto students. Wouldn’t it be smarter to figure out what students actually want and are able to afford, and then do something about that?

  4. Nicholas Shalagan / December 10, 2014 at 16:08

    Internationalization Priorities

    1. Undergraduate student recruitment
    2. strategic partnerships with overseas higher education institutions
    3. International research collaboration
    4. International graduate student recruitment
    5. Engagement in international development activities.

    Outbound mobility does not make the list of the top 5 internationalization priorities for institutions in Canada yet we continue to make comments like ” Studying abroad clearly isn’t a priority for most (students), which is surprising considering the importance that institutions say they place on internationalization.”

    There are institutions working towards the development of curriculum that incorporates outbound experiences. It will not happen overnight, but over the next 5 years there will be examples of some very creative integrated programs that get undergraduate students abroad for various periods of time – once these numbers are in it will hopefully result in money from both the public and private sectors as well as other institutions following along.

  5. Grant Dawson / December 11, 2014 at 06:25

    I would have jumped at a study abroad semester too when I was a student, but as you say the opportunities and more to the point the funding was scarce. I suspect that where universities are not being straightforward and why we are seeing this strange non-pick-up of students going overseas, is because the internationalization strategies are for the universities themselves (to bring in expensive fee-paying foreign students), not Canadian students. My experience of HE in the UK system suggests that the financial dimensiAn is all-important for the HE institutions. Perhaps there is not much more funding now than before for Camadians to go overseas. It is also possible that Canadians are much less curious and open to the rest of the world that we like to think and say.

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