January 6, 2006

Fostering global citizens

Polls say most Canadians want next generation to cultivate a "Cosmopolitan world view"

by Geoff McMaster and Richard Cairney
Folio Staff
The University of Alberta is hoping to enhance its international learning environment and increase opportunities for education abroad.
The University of Alberta is hoping to enhance its
international learning environment and increase
opportunities for education abroad.

The University of Alberta has much to be proud of on the international front, as a glance through the pages of this newspaper makes abundantly clear. But there is one area in which we're falling dramatically behind other Canadian universities – the number of undergraduates who spend time studying abroad.

In fact there's a good chance we don't even rank among the top 10 universities on that score, says Rae McDonald, director of international relations for University of Alberta International (UAI).

Take into account non-exchange arrangements, such as work or research placements, and our status is marginally better – perhaps ninth or tenth, says Barry Tonge, director of UAI's Education Abroad program. But any way you slice it, he says, "we are not even in the game."

To put things into perspective, Queens University has more endowment funds than the total number of awards given on this campus. The University of British Columbia has one fund alone worth more than $10 million, "and they almost guarantee that every exchange student will receive a minimum award…Laval guarantees every student going out on exchange, minimum awards of money," said Tonge.

At present, the U of A has less than $3 million in endowments to support student exchanges and study abroad programs, according to Tonge. To remedy this, Campaign 2008, the university's $310-million fundraising campaign, has a goal to raise that amount to $11 million.

Last year the U of A sent 207 students out on exchange programs, another 200 or so in non-reciprocal placements. Of those, 28 received awards amounting to free tuition. In comparison, UBC sent out 750 students on exchange programs alone.

The reason for the disparity? Tonge says that when other universities were socking away money for overseas study programs, the U of A simply missed the boat, as it were.

"Ten to 15 years ago most institutions in Canada strategically started to build endowments and funding. I don't know why, but we just didn't get on that, so we have been dwarfed by other campuses."

Tonge believes we can no longer afford our diminutive stature. According to a recent EKOS Research poll, 85 per cent of Canadians agree that knowledge of other cultures and an understanding of the world are increasingly important qualities in today's labour market, and 74 per cent think more students should be exposed to exchanges or internships abroad. Canadian business leaders also want executives with a "cosmopolitan world view."

A brief submitted to the House of Commons last fall by the Association of Colleges and Universities of Canada also identifies international education as a top priority: "In a world where Canada wants to share its values and experiences with partners abroad, the active engagement of universities and colleges creates international education opportunities for students, so that our next generation of leaders has a strong sense of global citizenship and sustains Canada's place of pride in the world."

The brief makes it clear that lack of funding is the main reason more students don't participate in exchanges. Tonge says he has been trying to persuade U of A administrators to fund more exchanges for more than two decades, but until recently there was a pervasive impression students here could afford to study abroad on their own.

"I fought with senior administrators for years saying, 'Look at the demographics, it doesn't support that…If you look at the percentage of U of A students that hold part-time employment while they're students, or the statistics for the number graduating with indebtedness to student finance board…if you look at the nature of the population on this campus, it's not particularly affluent."

The good news, says Tonge, is that the participation rate for fourth-year students (those in fourth year) in study abroad programs at the U of A is "exceedingly good" at 8.2 per cent. "Nationally we compare pretty well when we look at that statistic…But if you look at UBC, it's over 15 per cent."

Tonge is also encouraged that President Indira Samarasekera has made international education for undergraduates a key part of her new vision for the university.

If anyone knows the value of an international educational experience, it's Samarasekera, who has lived in four countries and earned degrees in three. She's lost track of the number of countries she has visited while consulting for steel companies but knows the value of that experience, and the importance of being prepared for it.

"It is the same industry, but different people work in different ways. They have different ethics and ways of running their companies. It tells you about the importance of understanding different cultures," says Samarasekera. "Understanding what a handshake means and what the customs are is critical to being successful. It has shaped how I think and how I function."

Samarasekera agrees the biggest challenge for students is funding. "Students don't have the resources to pay for a trip to China or India or Thailand. I see those resources ideally suited for philanthropic support, maybe U of A alumni who live in other countries who have benefited from their own travel and want to contribute to the experiences of students."

There are examples of such philanthropic initiatives. U of A alumnus Gord Arnell has been supporting a program to fund fellowships that bring post-doctoral researchers from Brazil's Sao Paulo University to the U of A's Faculty of Nursing for six months of research.

The university is presently setting goals for the percentage of students who study abroad as well as for the number of international students it hosts, adds Samarasekera. Promoting a healthy and thriving international community here on campus is, after all, the flip side of the study abroad equation.

University administrators are working on a new internal funding formula to improve programs for international students, says Dr. Carl Amrhein, the university's provost and vice-president (academic). The idea is to ensure that the differential tuition fee paid by international students "will flow to those who work with international students – to improve the way we serve those students, to improve the level of campus support," he said.

Other initiatives are underway to improve conditions for international students by lifting restrictions on the kinds of jobs they can take. It is a federal initiative, Amrhein says, being conducted with individual provinces.

"The good news is that everyone wants conditions to change," said Amrhein, who recently visited Aga Khan University in Karachi, India. It is planning to establish an arts and science faculty, and Amrhein, a former dean of arts at the University of Toronto, was invited to share his expertise.

"The trip from Edmonton to Karachi changes the way you view the world, and it isn't the 27-hour transit, it's seeing the incredibly high quality of living we have here and the challenges Karachi faces to provide basic infrastructure – like water and garbage collection," he said.

International activity, including educating 2,000 students from 110 countries around the world, represents "our gift to the world," said Samarasekera in her installation address last fall: "Let us educate more of them."

It's also important to increase student awareness of opportunities for educational experiences overseas, she said. "You want to make it something they actually aspire to. Why is it important for them to travel, and what do they want to get out of the experience? If you take a student who has never been outside of Edmonton, how do you get them excited about going to Russia or Africa, for example?…They have to be comfortable making that step."

So how do you convince students that these experiences are important?

"You sell them on the notion that the world is incredibly interconnected as a result of the Internet, the global economy, finance, ideas, people – all this is completely mobile," said Samarasekera. "So their quality of life in Edmonton or Camrose or even smaller towns will be increasingly affected by what happens in the rest of the world. Their ability to succeed depends on their understanding of the world."

Alberta relies on international trade for its own success, and Alberta companies are increasingly becoming global.

"The companies that employ our graduates are going to expect them to function as professionals in other countries and cultures," she said.

For Tonge, however, student awareness is the least of his concerns. "Students know about the programs. They're interested in going; they just need the support…If we get money on this campus, my guess is we would probably excel ahead of most campuses and be in the top five overnight."