Globe and Mail: See the World. But see Canada too

Watching Erin Freeland Ballantyne receive the Public Policy Forum’s Emerging Leader award last month, it occurred to me how much is being overlooked in all of the soul-searching about the potential enrichment of a university education.

Canada wants its citizens to be players in the global community, so it needs to graduate “students without boundaries”, who can move freely within and beyond our universities, provinces, national borders and academia itself to tackle new challenges and opportunities.

Yet statistics show that only one in 10 undergraduate students venture beyond their home province to attend university, and many stay within 20 kilometres of home. When it comes to cultivating global perspectives, Canada is committed to doubling to 450,000 the number of incoming international students by 2022. But in terms of international exposure for our own, we lag behind other OECD countries with a minuscule 2.2% of our students going abroad.

“University mobility” is not just geographical but disciplinary. It includes rethinking the BA, largely the extent to which it provides cross-disciplinary knowledge, exposure to different methods and skills, and experiential learning opportunities. Preparing students for a lifetime of adaptation means encouraging their curiosity and nimbleness through the exploration of multiple trajectories of study, including practical pathways that lead to careers. Universities are ideal and fertile ground to produce graduates who truly understand context and who “get” the big picture.

As a professor at McGill University, my greatest joy is having a classroom filled with a cross-section of students from across the country and around the world. These bright young people beget an open-mindedness and vibrancy that add perspectives and new dimensions to any discussion. The new dimensions they bring to the learning experience are wonderfully contagious.

Which brings us back to Ballantyne, a Rhodes Scholar and Action Canada Fellow who is a shining example of mobility across geography and disciplines. She is a fourth-generation northerner who, after obtaining a BA in International Development from McGill and an MSc and PhD in Environmental Policy from Oxford, founded the Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning in the Northwest Territories, which offers university semesters on critical northern issues. Ballantyne has made great strides in creating a space that values and builds upon Northern cultures and knowledge to benefit the North, Canada and the world. People like her epitomize the value of mobility and the need for post-secondary institutions to create conditions for such inspirational young people to flourish and succeed.

In Ontario, the new Council on Articulation and Transfer (ONCAT) is addressing mobility head-on. Committed to increasing mobility between universities and colleges, ONCAT’s strategic priority is to ease student mobility among all 44 publicly funded post-secondary institutions in the province. It has developed a dedicated web portal, 600 pathways between colleges and universities and over 65 multi-institution bridging projects.

This model could be replicated not just across Canada but internationally. If mobility across provincial borders leads to deeper, more holistic understanding, then international experience boosts global awareness and citizenship, giving students invaluable perspective and maximizing Canada’s interests and connections abroad.

Several programs already exist that offer internships, co-ops and exchanges, including Mitacs Globalink, connecting Canadian students and faculty with researchers in Brazil, China, India, Mexico, Turkey and Vietnam. There is greater employability among graduates who had opportunities beyond academia while in school — access to network-building programs that promote cross-pollination between academia and the private sector.

There is another side to this bigger equation. Parents and educators need to encourage students to live and learn outside of Canada as an integral part of their education. In university and college classrooms across Canada, we have our best and brightest. We need to do more to break down barriers, encourage them to expand horizons, embed student mobility and celebrate interdisciplinary vibrancy.

With some imagination and support from our institutions and governments, we can encourage young people to wander beyond their department, university, province or country. Like Erin Freeland Ballantyne, they will return richer for it.

Antonia Maioni is President of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences which is holding its annual Congress at Brock University from May 24 to 30; 8,000 people are attending.