Canadians are among the most inveterate travellers in the world: over 23 million leisure trips abroad every year—not bad for a total population of 36 million. That covers all age groups—including the very old and the very young.
And the world is reciprocating, with international tourist numbers hitting new peaks year after year and with foreign students flocking to Canadian colleges and universities to take advantage of world-class educational opportunities at tuition rates far below those in the United States. At top colleges across the nation, foreign students comprise 20 to 30 per cent of undergraduate enrollees—ditto for graduate programs.
But there is one area of internationalization that is clearly lagging, to the concern of Canadian educators and business leaders: that is the reluctance of well-qualified Canadian students taking up the challenge (and denying themselves the rewards) of studying abroad—full-term or short-term.
According to the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE), only 2.3 per cent of Canadian university students went abroad for some share of their studies in the 2014–2015 academic year. (Of that group, 21 per cent were pursuing careers in business, 14 per cent in engineering, 12 per cent in social studies, 10 per cent in health sciences and 6 per cent in education.)
This, despite the fact that Canadian businesses are eager to give hiring preference to students who have experienced international cultural, social, and commercial interactions; and despite the fact that at least two-thirds of students themselves felt their foreign experiences influenced not only their future academic paths but their career choices.
Why so few? Data from the CBIE revealed that 80 per cent thought their families couldn’t afford it, or that such travel would delay their overall education and keep them from getting into the workplace as quickly as possible. Some also had concerns about how education abroad might or might not be reflected in their course credits, and others simply feared missing their family and friends.
Yet, a 2015 survey by Léger Marketing for Universities Canada found that 82 per cent of Canadian hiring managers in small and medium-sized companies valued applicants with cross-cultural understanding and knowledge of a global marketplace.
In addition, Canada’s federal government is committed to a goal of sending 50,000 Canadian students abroad each year, and even colleges and universities are offering scholarships and subsidies to send their students abroad on exchanges. As one example, Ryerson University in Toronto and the University of Regina are each offering $1,000 awards for students to go on foreign exchanges.
Certainly, going abroad—perhaps alone, and for the first time—may seem daunting, but there’s no reason for it to be insurmountable.
There are plenty of support mechanisms available, close at hand—one of the most important being the need for health insurance in the host country. This is required by virtually all foreign study programs, but it is also easily available in Canada, and should be arranged prior to departure.
Make no mistake: medical coverage, even for small “emergencies,” is very expensive in all countries—especially Europe, just as it is in Canada if you don’t have provincial health insurance.
Next to the United States—where health care costs are in overdrive—the costs of health care on a per-capita basis or as a share of a nation’s gross domestic product in Canada, Netherlands, Germany, France, Switzerland, and several other of the world’s most developed countries are the highest around the globe.
High-quality medical care is expensive—there is no escaping that fact. Fortunately, international health insurance plans designed specifically for Canadian students abroad, or for foreign students in Canada, are affordable, generous in their coverage, and broadly available. But they are major purchases and should be guided by properly licensed professionals in foreign travel for students and expatriates.
Such insurance should not be considered an afterthought in planning any travel abroad.
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