How is UBC creating the “global student?”

It’s no secret that UBC prides itself on its status as a ‘global university.’ But with all the emphasis the university places on internationalization, is UBC succeeding in shaping its students into the coveted “global citizen”?

It’s no secret that UBC prides itself on its status as a “global university.” Deemed by Times Higher Education as “North America’s most international university” in 2017, UBC pulls its 21,600 new undergraduate admits from over 150 countries around the world.  

In order to maintain this status, last year the university announced its “International 2020,” a plan to revamp its international strategy which hasn’t seen an update since its last version in 2011.

According to the university, this internationalization aims to do three things: “foster global inclusivity among all its constituents; transform how we develop knowledge, how we teach and how we learn at the intersections of local, national and international imperatives; and develop students, faculty and staff the critical and intercultural skills and values that empower them to be global citizens and leaders.”

An article from the The Huffington Post also suggests that studying in a global environment prepares students for an ever-changing workplace. But with all the emphasis the university places on internationalization, is UBC succeeding in shaping its students into the coveted “global citizen” during their four or five-year education?  

Well, it’s certainly trying.

Bringing students here

For starters, UBC brings a large number of students from all over the world to its campus. International students make up about 23 per cent of all undergraduates and 32 per cent of all graduate students.

But why place such importance on international admissions in the first place?

To put it bluntly, “We’ve always believed that having interactions with people from other places enhances our own knowledge of the world,” said UBC Okanagan associate dean of graduate studies and advisor to the DVC on international initiatives Dr. Thomas Heilke. “It was understood that that interaction — those cultural differences — were part of what enhanced your education.”

According to vice provost and associate VP International pro tem Pam Ratner and executive director of international student initiatives Karen McKellin, these students are doing exactly that. They “contribute to the UBC community’s intercultural understanding and bring international perspectives to bear within the classroom and community that are so important for all future global citizens.”

The university’s mission to internationalize is also benefiting from global trends. In a 2015 examination of globalization in higher education, The Atlantic noted the emergence of a middle class in countries such as China and India has led to an influx of students with the funds to study overseas. This is an attractive option considering many universities in these countries are struggling to accommodate the large number of otherwise qualified students. 

But campus internationalization involves more than just bringing the students to campus. 

“Just bringing students from elsewhere … isn’t enough,” said Heilke. “If you’re wanting that activity to be a part of campus internationalization, you also have to create opportunities for those students … to get together in meaningful ways.”

This means providing access to programs like UBC Tandem, which brings together students who aim to learn each other’s languages, as well as encouraging students to discuss with one another inside the classroom.

“Ideally … you learn to empathize with folks who might have different life circumstances, think a bit differently from you,” said UBC political science professor Dr. Arjun Chowdhury on the topic of learning globally. “The idea is that even if you don’t agree with them all the time, you can think a little bit like, ‘Okay, why do they think the way they do? Where are they coming from? And the easiest way of doing that is to actually talk. Books are very important, but they are limited in that regard.”

Not everyone has embraced the idea of campus internationalization.

Many worry domestic seats may be filled by the influx of those from outside of Canada. Yet, the university is adamant this is not the case and international students are not in fact displacing domestic students in government-subsidized seats (according to UBC’s 2016 Enrollment Report, Canadian representation actually grew on both UBC campuses in the last year). Even when international students are admitted to the university, they face a high barrier to entry as differential fees continue to rise. 

Sending students there

Campus internationalization goes both ways. It’s not just about bringing students from all over the world to UBC, but also sending students from the university throughout the globe. In this regard, the university provides a fairly solid support base. Programs like Go Global and co-op allow domestic and international students alike to spend time living, working and studying abroad.

“Personal development, understanding of self, position in the world ... and identity [are] a big component of these experiences,” said Taryn Cigagna, associate director of Go Global international learning programs.

Programs like these not only give students the opportunity to “live the classroom content,” she noted, but also give students the chance to meet people from around the world, learn about themselves, become independent and resilient, and develop “some intercultural competency and awareness for broader issues.”

While going abroad is not the only way to develop these skills, it certainly provides an environment conducive to this kind of learning. 

“I think being able to remove yourself from here — a place where you’re comfortable, where you understand and being thrown into something new — it kind of presses the fast forward button to some degree on being able to ask these questions and develop these awarenesses earlier,” said Cigagna.   

Students can also take advantage of a more academic route with the Dual Degree program, a partnership between UBC arts and the internationally acclaimed Sciences Po, which allows them to spend two years in France and two in Canada. The Dual Degree exposes learners to two separate national educational cultures, the differences in which English professor Dr. Janet Giltrow argued in a statement, “become the materials for developing perspectives on knowledge itself, what it is, how cultures value it and so on.”

Students also benefit from studying under faculty who travel abroad. UBC Policy 83, last revised in 2005, recognizes faculty travel as a “necessary component in the gathering and dissemination of information and knowledge.”

According to Heilke, “part of [professors’] activity as researchers, and what they bring back to the classroom, is to be active in a global sense: to be working internationally with colleagues in a variety of ways and to encourage our students to do that.”

“A responsibility to be diversifying”: Is UBC succeeding?

So is the university succeeding in its attempt to create “global citizens?”

Ultimately, it depends on your definition.

“[Is] this global environment a place where folks who are interacting with each other have some common set of language and standards of reasoning? If it’s [this], then I think UBC can contribute. That is to say, why are folks coming to UBC from all over the world? It's because we can provide that,” said Chowdhury.

He noted that regardless of a university’s international status, a good school needs to give students not only the ability to converse with people from all over the world, but also the ability to discern when arguments make sense.

Cigagna believes international education is the key to creating “global citizens.”

“Within the changing world and dynamic of globalization, we have a responsibility as well to be diversifying the opportunities for students,” she said.

Still, others caution against the term “global” in its entirety. Giltrow believes the term could be construed simply as the “homogenization of privileged education.”

She noted while today’s top graduates may possess “global” skills — for example, mobility, diverse experiences, the ability to speak multiple languages and what she terms as a “cosmopolitan mentality” — she wonders “if those claims will survive the current re-think of ‘global’ and of the production of an elite.” 

In truth, it’s hard give a definitive answer. Whether students find a career that takes them abroad, are able to speak a different language or are simply a little more open to opinions of others, there is no one measure for the degree of “globalization” in education.

In the end, Chowdhury said, the university has one main purpose. “The idea is that wherever you are coming from, why you’re here is to be exposed to the process of reasoning. And that is meant to give all of us a common framework to talk to each other. [As a professor], that’s what I’m trying to do.”