Is Outbound Student Mobility Back?

By Diane Barbaric

In Canada, at both the federal level and also in Ontario, outbound student mobility has not been a policy priority for over a decade. Instead, our policies have focused on attracting and retaining international students to boost the Canadian economy. To this day, we are still the only G7 country in the world that does not have an outbound student mobility target.

The Ontario Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development’s (MAESD) recently released International Postsecondary Education Strategy 2018 (IPES) is a surprisingly courageous policy document that clearly returns outbound student mobility to the postsecondary international education policy agenda.

By putting outbound student mobility back on the radar, MAESD is not only lifting Ontario to the level of our peer nations and signalling a desire to actively re-engage with the world, it is also squarely returning Ontario’s postsecondary students to the centre of the international education policy-making agenda.

Movement on Outbound Student Mobility at Last

Under its first principle of creating global citizens, the IPES openly talks about wanting to “create opportunities for Ontario students to study abroad” (p. 11). This isn’t an afterthought bullet or part of a longer clause; it is an action item in and of itself which is then supported by two bold implementation mechanisms that deserve praise, even if only in their ambition.

Funding. Wisely couched in domestic student experience rhetoric, the IPES aims to establish scholarships to financially support students who wish to study abroad (I assume this means in addition to the funds available to students from the consortium of universities participating in Ontario Universities International). This would be a welcome return to student funding since the province’s only sector-wide program, the very targeted Ontario International Education Opportunity Scholarship (OIEOS), was eliminated in 2012.

Data. In what is perhaps the boldest ambition in the entire strategy, MAESD lists as an actionable item “setting international study targets for university and college students abroad developed collaboratively by the postsecondary sector and the ministry” (p. 12). What a can of worms! However, by overtly putting it out there, not only does this suggest that MAESD aims to lead on this file — by working collaboratively with institutions and holding them accountable through tracking measures — it also suggests that MAESD aims to eliminate the largest obstacle to any meaningful discussion and analysis of outbound student mobility to date: lack of data.

A Courageous Policy Document on Two Fronts

Over the years, there have been numerous calls for higher education data from both stakeholders and academics in the province (for some examples, see here, here, and here). Target setting starts to respond to these calls. For outbound student mobility, we would finally, necessarily, have a baseline number to see where we currently sit, and by monitoring changes over time, the tracking function would hold both the ministry and institutions accountable for their progress. This is good public policy. It is also a brave first step on the rocky road to alleviating this province’s data deficit (at least on this file).

Next, despite an active postsecondary public policy-influencing landscape, including on international student recruitment, no major advocacy group in the province has actively lobbied in favour of providing outbound student mobility opportunities for Ontario’s university students since at least 2005. In this barren landscape, it is courageous and right for the Ministry itself to step in and advocate on behalf of the province’s postsecondary students.

Not Perfect But a Damn Good Start

In a previous blog post, I mentioned the failure of Canada’s federal government to provide leadership in preparing Canadian students to be globally-minded citizens. MAESD at least aspires to this in the IPES through its study abroad action item. More importantly, it lists key policy-implementing mechanisms that would provide concrete results in the short- and long-term to both Ontario’s postsecondary students and the academic community as a whole.

CaptureTo be sure, the strategy still leaves a lot to be desired. However, after more than one year of province-wide consultations, and in our pluralist public policy-making tradition where agreement among major stakeholders is key, this strategy probably hits the mark.

With the writs drawn up and the provincial election less than one month away, we’ll see if anything ever comes of this document. At the very least, though, the strategy has already re-centred the province’s international education public policy on Ontario’s postsecondary students and it has set a course for facilitating their international work and study experiences abroad. It’s not perfect, but it’s a damn good start.

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