In the 1980s and 1990s, federal development assistance programs helped create groundbreaking linkages between Canadian and Chinese universities. It was a critical time – China was opening up to the world. Today, internationalization of education involves the recruitment of international students, development of international branch campuses, more outward-looking curriculums, research and education partnerships, and exchanges for students, staff and scholars. Where Canada was a leader 20 to 30 years ago, it now lags behind while countries such as the US, the UK and Australia engage with China as a major source of international students. The legacies from those earlier collaborative experiences between Canada and China ought to be studied and should inform policy and strategy in ways that could give Canadian universities a unique position within China’s international educational relations.

From 1981 to 2001, the Government of Canada funded three programs to encourage educational ties with China: the Canada-China Management Education Program (CCMEP), the Canada-China University Linkage Program (CCULP) and the Special University Linkage Consolidation Program (SULCP). These initiatives, attracting a total of $68.7 million in funding, involved a wide range of universities and colleges in both countries and made a considerable contribution to rebuilding China’s teaching and research infrastructure in higher education, immediately after the devastating Cultural Revolution. They covered areas such as environmental science, marine science, engineering, management, law, agriculture, medicine, education, minority cultures and women’s studies, which were all fields of study crucial to China’s social transformation and progress. The creation of China’s first MBA programs was directly linked to the Canadian initiatives. One Chinese scholar who received his MBA at Dalhousie University went on to set up one of China’s largest accounting firms and was vice-president of the China National Accounting Institute.

In the first decade of these programs, when China had just stepped into a political and economic reform era, Canada was the only Western country to engage with Chinese universities. The Canadian programs focused on developing the knowledge and skills of Chinese teaching staff – a rare objective, given that other countries and multilateral bodies were focused on bricks-and-mortar investments in China rather than human resource capacity. The unique strength of the Canadian approach to working with Chinese universities is detailed in the book Canadian Universities in China’s Transformation: An Untold Story. We conducted a total of 65 interviews with key participants at universities in various regions of Canada and China, and asked about their experiences and their assessments of the long-term outcomes of these programs.

Decades later, some might argue that our universities should have leveraged these relationships with Chinese peers, making sure Canada is well positioned to reap the economic benefits from China’s drive toward internationalizing its higher education. But it’s doubtful that the pure pursuit of profits would dictate the motives of Canadian universities or fit with their values. Instead, many institutions share the concern that financial imperatives are compromising the role of universities as “a critic and conscience of society” and their ability to work toward the global good. The Canadian scholar Vanessa Andreotti, one of the scholars behind the Ethical Internationalization of Higher Education (EIHE) research project, is pushing the idea of “trans-localism” rather than internationalization. Trans-localism is more about local-to-local connections across borders, as opposed to having relationships dictated top-down from national governments. Together, Canadian and Chinese scholars can respond to the real human, social and environmental needs in both their countries.

As I’ve explored in my own work, the Canadian approach to partnering with Chinese universities was already founded on the basis of local contact, rather than led by federal officials. Canadian and Chinese universities and colleges were paired through the CCMEP, CCULP and SULCP. Because education does not fall within Ottawa’s jurisdiction, the institutions working under these federal programs had more leeway to collaborate directly with their Chinese counterparts and identify their specific needs.

Universities possess comparative advantages that other international development actors do not necessarily have.

Universities possess comparative advantages that other international development actors do not necessarily have, such as the ability to facilitate people-to-people exchanges, cross-border knowledge mobility and joint research. Thirty years ago, China was emerging from a strict, centrally planned economy, and universities were accustomed to taking their instructions from Beijing. The Canadian programs demonstrated the benefits of having strategic planning units within individual universities, an idea that eventually took hold almost everywhere in China. The transfer of knowledge from Canadian education experts to Chinese peers happened without the kind of tensions that can sometimes characterize high-level bilateral relations.

Such international collaborations could function as a vehicle to forge social change at a global level. As another Canadian scholar based at the University of British Columbia, Paul Evans, said in Canadian Universities in China’s Transformation, “University partnerships are points of intersection that may be valuable in their own right but ultimately will be judged on whether they produce a larger societal and global good.”

Admittedly, it is challenging for Canadian universities to take on an international civic role unilaterally, as they all fall under provincial jurisdiction and are bound by the expectations of their communities and taxpayers. The federal government should therefore intervene with programs of a similar nature to the three created decades ago (the CCMEP, CCULP and SULCP).

Meanwhile, the Chinese government has continued to innovate in this area, with more people-to-people exchange programs with the US, the UK, the EU and Indonesia, and universities are playing a central role. Although Canada may not be able to deploy a large amount of public funds anymore toward major education initiatives with China, it could mobilize private resources, especially those from the Canadian Chinese community; this is exactly the approach taken in the US to finance the State Department’s 100,000 Strong campaign, which has a goal of seeing 100,000 Americans study in China.

Such people-to-people exchange programs are important for Canada-China relations in the current geopolitical context, as the world’s centre of economic gravity shifts eastward. Universities can help build up our domestic expertise on China and create important ties. Once people-to-people interactions promote understanding and strengthen bilateral relations, economic benefits will certainly follow.


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


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Qiang Zha
Qiang Zha is an associate professor at the Faculty of Education, York University. His recent books include a co-authored book (with Ruth Hayhoe and others), Portraits of 21st Century Chinese Universities: In the Move to Mass Higher Education, and three edited volumes: Education and Global Cultural Dialogue (co-edited with Karen Mundy, Palgrave Macmillan), Education in China: Educational History, Models, and Initiatives and Canadian Universities in China’s Transformation: An Untold Story (co-edited with Ruth Hayhoe and Julia Pan).

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