The weight of global influence is shifting inexorably toward Asia, and many nations are contemplating how to adjust their policy settings to face the regional powerhouse of China. Raising the numbers of study abroad opportunities for Canadians in China will become all the more important.

Three decades before the Australian government unveiled its Australia in the Asian Century White Paper in 2012, the nation’s universities had already got the memo. From the mid-1980s, agreements began to be forged between Australian universities and their Chinese counterparts. They paved the way for the large-scale exchange of students and academic staff, as well as major research collaborations.

The growth in such ties has been phenomenal. In 2012, China eclipsed the US as the country with the highest number of formal agreements with Australia’s universities. The tally stands at more than 1,400. Canada’s universities aren’t slouches either (read Qiang Zha’s piece on the history of Sino-Canadian university collaboration). At last count, Canadian universities had signed 560 formal agreements with institutions in China. These documents lay the foundations for an even deeper bilateral relationship — forged in large part through our students.

The reciprocal ties forged through individual study abroad programs and university agreements strengthen the foundations for future decades of diplomatic, business, cultural and educational engagement.

And yet, in 2012-13, only 3.1 percent of Canada’s full-time undergraduate students — or three in every 100 — studied abroad, even though 97 percent of Canada’s universities offered such opportunities. Universities Canada has urged the Canadian government to invest in international study opportunities for 50,000 students a year by 2022.

In Australia, 16.5 percent — or one in six — of Australian undergraduates now study abroad at some stage during their university lives. That number has quadrupled since 2005, thanks to concerted efforts by both universities and governments. We’ve worked together to expand the numbers of opportunities, create more short study abroad options to overcome potential barriers of cost and time, and promote the benefits of study abroad.

These efforts have been driven by a shared understanding of the importance of study abroad opportunities. These programs, run reciprocally over several decades, deepen ties between nations. They also generate new economic opportunities and research partnerships, and give our students the skills and connections they will need to forge truly global careers.

Research conducted for Universities Australia by the International Education Association of Australia affirms why this is increasingly important. Study abroad programs enhance students’ cross-cultural literacy, adaptability, open-mindedness, understanding of complex global issues and cognitive skills. These are the foundational skills of modern workplaces in an increasingly globalized economy.

The data also reveal that students who have studied overseas learn to cope outside of their comfort zone, develop stronger self-sufficiency and build their independence and confidence in handling unfamiliar situations. They also have better academic performance, higher completion rates, stronger civic engagement and higher levels of professional mobility.

This goal of increasing the number of study abroad opportunities for young Canadians — particularly in China — isn’t just about personal opportunity. It has immense strategic value to Canada. The reciprocal ties forged through individual study abroad programs and hundreds of formal agreements made between universities in both countries strengthen the foundations for future decades of diplomatic, business, cultural and educational engagement.

Just one of many such examples is China’s vice-minister of education, Hao Ping, who participated in Universities Australia’s flagship professional development program, the China Australia Executive Leadership Program, back in 2002 when he was vice-president of Peking University. He wrote afterwards: “Through this project, we have a better understanding of each other. There are a lot of interests in future cooperation which can benefit both sides.”

The challenge for both our nations is to keep raising the number of Canadian and Australian students heading to China.

In 2014, 99,341 Chinese students opted to study in Australia. Canada has also had strong success in attracting large numbers of Chinese students to study there. Now the challenge for both our nations is to keep raising the number of Canadian and Australian students heading to China.

In Australia, this work has been boosted significantly by government-funded initiatives such as the previous Asia Bound program and the A$100-million New Colombo Plan launched in 2014 as a signature initiative of the coalition government. The NCP is a reprise in reverse of the original Colombo Plan, which funded Asian students to study in Australia. It offers Australian students scholarships to study for up to one year in Asia, as well as internships and mentorships. Another scheme, Endeavour Mobility Grants, also supports Australian undergraduate, postgraduate and vocational education students to study abroad if it contributes to their Australian qualification. Government-supported OS-HELP loans can help to cover the cost of some language training.

Being able to access funds to study abroad is only part of the challenge. Raising students’ awareness of these opportunities and inspiring them to pursue study abroad has also been crucial. In 2013, Universities Australia signed a contract with the Australian Department of Education and Training to develop a three-year project to promote student mobility. This work grew into the World Class campaign. It has lifted the profile of study abroad options with promotional materials and through a strong presence at study expos. Mindful that peer experiences were a powerful influence, the campaign also ran a student video competition, inviting students to promote study abroad to other young Australians.

Research commissioned for the World Class campaign identified barriers to greater participation in study abroad experiences. These included concerns about cost, language barriers and the length of time abroad. There has since been a significant rise in short-term programs being offered by institutions, such as study tours, summer courses, practical placements, internships and short courses.

Canadian universities are well advanced down this path also. Yet there is more that can be done in both nations to keep refining and improving programs that promote study abroad opportunities. And who knows where all of this may lead? Perhaps a future Canadian prime minister will turn out to be a fluent Mandarin speaker who lived in China on a study abroad program at university.

Photo: tangxn /

This article is part of the Canada-China Relations Special Feature.


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Belinda Robinson is chief executive of Universities Australia. She will visit Canada in late October 2016 to speak at events hosted by Universities Canada on international education strategies and the link between national investments in education, research and innovation, and future prosperity.

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