Universities have been vocal about their ambitions to lure more international students to Canada, but they are quietly worried far too few Canadian students go abroad for their own formative experiences.
Federal and provincial governments are eager to market Canada as a higher-education destination. They feel international students make the classroom more diverse and globally oriented, while also attracting new revenue.
But when 25 university presidents converged in Ottawa to discuss Canada's innovation agenda with parliamentarians on Tuesday, several of them cautioned that more homegrown students need to study outside their own backyard to develop strong worldwide connections and an instinct to innovate.
"Canadian students are not big travellers in comparison to, say, Americans or New Zealanders or Australians, and they don't even travel that much from province to province," said Queen's University principal Daniel Woolf.
About 9 in 10 Canadian students go to university in their home province, and evidence suggests a large proportion choose a school within 20 kilometres of home. Only 12 per cent of undergraduates have an international placement or exchange experience, according to a 2009 survey – reason to fear the experience of many students is too parochial given high demand for the ability to work and think globally.
"If I look across the U.S. universities which are most like ours, it's more like 20 per cent, or a little higher," said Herb O'Heron, director of research and policy analysis at the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. "When I talk to people in Germany, more like a third of students have [such]an experience."
Sean Riley, president of St. Francis Xavier University, was skeptical of his school's service learning program that sent students to Guatemala to examine topics like the coffee economy, until he made the trip himself. Now he is "fanatical" about fostering international connections.
"If I had a choice, I'd take the number of students that have a significant international exposure and multiply it by 10 or 20," Dr. Riley said. "I think we're kidding ourselves if we think we actually have a global mindset."
Most universities have dozens, even hundreds of partnerships with schools abroad, but only a fraction of students take advantage of them, especially early in their studies, said Dalhousie University president Tom Traves.
"It exposes you, it transforms you, changes you as a person – you never see the world in the same way again," he said.
That was Georgia Anstey's experience. The 21-year-old Vancouver native and University of British Columbia student stumbled on a UBC international service learning program in 2010, and spent six weeks that summer in Swaziland working on a community-level HIV/AIDS project and talking to families. She quickly switched her major from history to international relations, and now has two longer study trips planned, to Uganda and France.
"It shifted my entire direction," Ms. Anstey said. "Looking at trends with HIV is so staggering sometimes, you distance yourself from it in a classroom sense, from a book or a report. But when you know people, it definitely makes a difference."
Dr. Traves worries the public still sees study abroad as frivolous, making student travel a tough political sell. Most trips are funded out of strained university budgets, through in-house fundraising or out of students' pockets.
By contrast, the Brazilian government recently promised to spend $2-billion sending 75,000 more of its students abroad.
"If you put in place a broad national strategy along these lines, I don't think it would cost big money in the context of the total budget of the federal government – we're talking tens of millions of dollars, not hundreds. That would be astonishing and have a huge impact," Dr. Traves said.
"To be a global player, you have to have global understanding, and you can't do that sitting in your basement looking at a computer screen."