By Diane Barbaric

Like millions of people around the world, when I woke up on June 24th and saw that the “Leave” vote in the UK’s EU Referendum was over the 50% threshold, I was shell-shocked. But then I couldn’t help but wonder if the results might have been different if more people in the UK had studied abroad.

According to the latest figures from the UK Higher Education International Unit, only 1.2% of UK-domiciled students in England had studied or worked abroad for part of their degree in academic year 2014/2015, with this figure being relatively stable for the past 15 years. In contrast, in Germany, in 2013, “29% of all bachelor’s and 41% percent of all master’s degree students had completed an academic stay abroad by the time they completed their degree programs.”

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This German tradition of outward student mobility has been active since 1925, and very much so since the 1950s. The idea is therefore deeply entrenched in German society. At least two generations of Germans now feel that they are part of something bigger than just the nation state. Significantly, this includes people aged 45–65+, the same demographic that in the UK voted disproportionately for the Brexit.

I am currently in Europe doing field research for my PhD in Higher Education. Specifically, I’m analyzing national policies on outward student mobility. I started my research stay in London in April, moved on to Paris in May, and have now been in Germany (Bonn, and currently Berlin) since early June. One thing that has struck me the most during my interviews with higher education policy and advocacy leaders has been the role that Europe has played in their psyche.

When asking the reasons for encouraging (or not) outward mobility, Europe was absent from the discourse of my UK interviewees. On the contrary, Europe is ever-present in the minds of the Germans. And this contrast was at the forefront of my thoughts as I read analyses of the referendum results.

We are living in a time when the world needs actors who are fully engaged in the world community, individuals who are capable of interacting in a foreign environment and solving problems on a global scale. Leading countries like the USA, Australia, France, and Germany have understood this, and all have established policies, programs, and mechanisms (including funding) to facilitate the outward movement of their students. They are forming the next generation of internationally-oriented citizens and leaders.

On this front, Canada is sorely lagging. It is estimated that a meagre 3.1% of our undergraduate students study abroad, with 55% of them studying in the United States.

It’s no secret that since 2007, the Canadian federal government has been actively and aggressively pursuing the recruitment of international students to Canadian college and university campuses. Encouraging outward mobility for Canadian students, however, has been an afterthought at best. Yet, outward student mobility is crucial to avoiding insularity and to forming globally-minded citizens. One could even argue that it is the role of government to ensure access to such opportunities for those who desire them, as we are witnessing in our peer nations.

Canada’s first-ever International Education Strategy (IES) was an opportunity for the federal government to do just that: to provide leadership in preparing Canadian students to be globally-minded citizens engaged on the world stage, but it failed. Instead of proffering a balanced approach to internationalization, the government focussed almost exclusively on the economic benefit of luring international students to our campuses, and in so doing sent a strong message about how it viewed international education.

An analysis of the IES will be the subject of a future post. In the meantime, however, I can’t help but wonder what sense of international belonging—and certainly what degree of international engagement—our Canadian society will have if our students overwhelmingly continue to stay at home.

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