The study abroad conundrum

How international study experiences might lead to social inequality

Internationalization has become one of the main trends in the world of education. Studying abroad or gaining alternative international experience through working, travelling, or volunteering has become increasingly popular among students. Employers and recruiters for graduate schools include these international experiences more and more on their checklists, associating them with personal growth, open-mindedness, intercultural skills, and independence. It signals assertiveness, and the ability to work in teams of people with different backgrounds. Depending on the destination, studying abroad can also help in developing language skills that could be beneficial later in life.

In Germany, around a third of all university students spend at least some time during their studies abroad, while the U.S. keeps up with about 20 per cent of its students partaking in the experience. In Canada, even though the tendency is rising, the numbers are less significant, with only around 10 per cent of all university and college students taking part in any study abroad programs. Katie Idle, the coordinator of the Study and Go Abroad Fair organized by Recruit in Canada, told The Daily that there is rising interest in international study experiences. “We started with 400-500 visitors the first year we organized in in Montreal in 2010. Now we expect between 800 and 1000 visitors.”

According to the “Open Doors Report” from 2012, the supply of study abroad programs has become much more diverse and accessible. When studying abroad started becoming popular in the 1970s and 1980s, the duration of the programs was much longer.; however, a recent trend shows that students prefer shorter stays abroad. “The Open Doors Report” points out that 58 per cent of the students going abroad are registered in an 8-weeks-or-shorter summer program. 38 per cent spend between one and two semesters abroad, and only 4 per cent study or work for at least a year in a foreign country. Hence, there is a continuously growing availability of short-term programs, including summer courses, internships, and work opportunities. “Popular, for instance, is teaching English during summer. South Korea and Japan are the current hot spots. But South America is [also] increasingly considered as the place to go,” says Janice Tester, who is a career advisor at McGill’s Career Planning Service (CaPS).

While it seems to be becoming increasingly regular, if not expected, to gain international experience – be it through teaching English in South Korea, doing summer school in Brazil, or studying for a semester in France – it is undoubtedly a matter of finances as well. Depending on what sort of international experience one is opting for, costs can be substantially higher than the fees paid for studying at home. Travel costs, potentially higher living expenses, and supplementary program fees can quickly end up accumulating. The “Open Doors Report” states that there has been a notable increase of institutions offering scholarships and other financial support, from 63 per cent in 2000 to 81 per cent in 2007; however, the Canadian Bureau for International Education’s “World of Learning Report” in 2009 emphasized that for 69 per cent of students, lack of funds or financial support is still the most common barrier to studying or working abroad. “There are increasingly funding and financial support opportunities,” explains Idle. “The government provides more funds in order to make studying abroad attractive for Canadians. But there is an according uptrend among universities and companies, as well.”

Tester adds that while students with more limited funds might not have as many options for their stays abroad, there are still opportunities available for them. For example, some of the working programs, for instance teaching English in Asia, are paid. This might be a viable option if the degrees needed to teach were free. Kester adds, “If a student really wants to go abroad, there normally is a way to make this possible. There are many students consulting me and my colleagues who do not have the required funds themselves.” This statement, however, ignores the fact that many students are not able to spend money or time on study programs, as this would restrict their time to work in order to afford a degree.

“It is also a question of international networks,” says Tester. “Many students going abroad arrange their work and stay via friends, family and acquaintances.” This requires, however, that one already be part of an international network, and know how to use it. Studies have consistently shown that students are more likely to study abroad if they are in an environment that is able to support this decision. A family that is internationally oriented, or is at least approving and encouraging of a stay abroad, might play a substantial role. The findings of the “Open Doors Report” show that racial minorities are underrepresented among the students heading abroad, which is inequitable, considering the benefits that come with taking part in these programs. Since people from different socioeconomic backgrounds might be less likely to take part in these programs, this can lead to social inequality when it comes to getting hired or getting into grad school. Even though universities and the government try to strike a balance by providing students with scholarships or paid working opportunities, the high cost of the programs will remain a problem for many.