In late May, the president of Universities Canada, Paul Davidson, and leaders from 14 Canadian universities travelled to the Netherlands to visit Dutch universities, share best practices in academic research and explore new partnerships.
The Canadian visitors toured university research centres focused on issues ranging from quantum computing to healthy aging. They also met some of the Canadian students studying in the Netherlands through a unique scholarship program – created in 2015 by the Dutch government to honour Canada’s role in the liberation of the Netherlands in the final months of the Second World War.
Expanding opportunities for Canadian students to study abroad and forging new cross-border research partnerships – these are aspects of the growing international focus of Canada’s universities.
“More than 80 per cent of universities in this country have internationalization as a core priority of their strategic plan, up significantly from previous decades,” Mr. Davidson says. “Universities are working in a global environment as never before – and they recognize it’s critical for the current generation of graduates to be truly global citizens.”
The Canadian business community is a key ally in this matter, he says. “Business leaders want to hire graduates with international skills and perspectives, who are comfortable working across languages and cultures.
“As a trading country, our future economic prosperity will depend on giving our students these critical global skills.”
Attracting international students to Canadian campuses is another component of internationalization. This group provides an economic boost to institutions and the country – contributing around $10-billion a year to our economy, according to research by Global Affairs Canada.
Saint Mary’s University in Halifax calls itself “Canada’s international university” – with international students from 119 countries comprising 35 per cent of enrollees. The president of Saint Mary’s, Robert Summerby-Murray, says it is a rich and exciting environment that benefits all students.
“It’s transformative for learning to have a veritable United Nations on campus,” he says. “I step outside my office and can hear a conversation about climate change that might involve students from Tanzania, Belgium and Bangladesh. This diversity helps to transform the world view of our Canadian students.”
Saint Mary’s has extensive joint programs with foreign universities, including several with academic institutions in China that allow students from that country to complete the final year or two of their degrees at Saint Mary’s. “We also have a number of study-abroad and exchange programs that are putting Canadian students in places like Mexico, France and China, allowing them to augment their curriculum in another country and get a taste of another culture,” says Dr. Summerby-Murray.
Yet, challenges remain. Only around three per cent of full-time Canadian undergraduates have a short-term international experience – such as a term or field work abroad -- even though almost all universities offer these options.
Universities Canada and its member universities are making it a priority to increase the outflow of Canadian students abroad, to help them acquire those global skills employers demand.
The University of Calgary recently allocated an extra $1-million to provide grants to its students for international learning experiences and is committed to further investments to give a minimum of 50 per cent of students at least one such experience before graduating.
“Funding can help. Especially if the economy is slow, students may ask why they should spend money to study abroad,” says Janaka Ruwanpura, the university’s vice-provost (international).
“We also need to better motivate students to pursue these opportunities – show them the value.”
The University of Calgary aspires to be among the top five research universities in Canada, and international initiatives are integral to that goal, adds Dr. Ruwanpura.
“We have combined research and international concepts in areas of research strength,” he says.
“For example, we want to develop four global research sites in energy. We’ve already established our first site in Beijing, and the government of Mexico is supporting a research site in Mexico City, in which our university will work with Mexican institutions on research and training related to energy reforms.
“Through these and other facets of our international strategy, we strive to help our graduates thrive in diverse environments around the globe.”
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