Canada is facing a China knowledge deficit
Chinese studies and language programs are losing ground in our universities, even as China looms ever larger in Canada’s future.
China is currently our second-largest trading partner, and its economic importance to Canada will only increase. Complex policy questions are sure to arise as a result. The recently approved Chinese takeover of Canadian energy corporation Nexen is merely a foretaste of what is coming down the metaphorical pipeline.
In 1995, Graham Johnson, then Chair of the Centre for Chinese Research at the University of British Columbia, viewed Chinese studies in Canada with tempered optimism: “In the 1990s, Canadian universities, like those in other parts of the world, have been deeply affected by budget constraints. The growth of Chinese studies has, nevertheless, been sustained.”
In 2012 we can no longer say that. Over the very period when Canada’s educational muscle on China should have been strengthened, even our strongest Chinese studies programs have struggled to replace faculty retirements, and Chinese studies has been losing ground relative to other university sectors and to peer institutions abroad.
Reflecting on his time as Canadian ambassador to China, David Mulroney warned in The Globe and Mail this past November that Canada needs to “work a lot harder at understanding China, warts and all.” Where will the Canadian experts who can engage with China in the 21st century come from?
There are currently 95 member institutions of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. Only eight of those offer a full four-year undergraduate program in Chinese language. Another nine or 10 offer some credit classes in Chinese language, with a major or minor in some version of Asian studies. Only five universities in Canada offer any kind of graduate degree in Chinese or East Asian Studies. The number with doctoral programs is three.
This should be a matter of national concern. More, it is a national embarrassment. It represents a profound systemic failure to come to grips with vital changes in Canada’s domestic and international realities. Yet there seems to be little anxiety or even awareness about it in higher-education circles in Canada. Why?
The distorting effect of Canada’s relationship with the U.S. is one underlying reason. When one trading partner is so dominant, why channel scarce educational dollars into the others? Proximity to the U.S. has also relieved Canadian universities of pressure to develop our own educational resources on Asia. For decades we have sent many of our best students abroad for their graduate training in Chinese studies, and graduates of U.S. PhD programs comprise the overwhelming majority of academic specialists on China teaching in Canadian universities. Canada has benefitted immensely from those scholars, but we have, in effect, relied on outsourcing graduate education in Chinese studies and importing China expertise from abroad to staff our university faculties.
Provincial vs. national agendas
Educational provincialism is another factor. The driving forces for a national agenda for Asia – foreign policy and international trade – are felt federally, where the importance of China has been well recognized, but that has seldom translated into sustained investment by provincial governments in Chinese studies in our universities.
The example of Alberta is instructive. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, federal government agencies were content to concentrate federal resources supporting Asian studies in Toronto and Vancouver. The crucial difference for the development of East Asian studies at the University of Alberta came with the election of the late Peter Lougheed as premier in 1971. As Dr. Brian Evans recounts in his fascinating memoir, Pursuing China, Lougheed imagined a bigger Alberta, one engaged with the world, and he made sure that funding was directed toward developing the China program at U of A. Lougheed was convinced, rightly, that a strong university program in East Asian languages and cultures was an investment in cultural capital for Alberta’s future engagement with China.
Today, by contrast, our university leaders are putting the cart before the horse when it comes to China. They are in hot pursuit of China, in fact, but rarely connect that pursuit to investing in strong programs in Chinese studies aimed at Canadian students in Canadian universities.
A recent report by UBC President Stephen Toope exemplifies the problem. Dr. Toope outlines the “top 10 steps to position Canada as the education destination and partner of choice for Asia,” emphasizing the standard current repertoire of academic administrators: research collaborations, institutional partnership agreements and the recruitment of fee-paying students from Asian countries. Ensuring strong Asian language programs in Canadian universities gets one sentence, with no mention of funding. Ironically, at a time when East Asian governments are investing heavily in overseas education for their languages, the pressing need for base-level educational investment in Chinese studies programs in Canadian universities receives scant attention from our university leadership elite.
Ambassador Mulroney had it right: “There are no shortcuts. We need to spend a lot more time and effort trying to understand China, its language and culture.”
Filling the talent pool
What should be done? Canada’s future engagement with China requires a broad-based and stable infusion of resources, building up faculty strength and teaching capacity for the long term in the core areas of Chinese studies. This must start with strong language programs, adding classes on culture, history and contemporary society to that foundation.
With exposure to these classes, some students each year will catch the China bug that will launch them on a lifelong adventure of discovery and fascination. They will become the talent pool for Canada’s China engagement over the coming decades – in politics, business, media, education, tourism, cultural diplomacy and countless other areas. But exposure is the first step, and nationwide in 2012 far too few Canadian undergraduates get that exposure.
Fixing the China knowledge deficit will cost money, for sure, but courses in language and culture are a bargain when compared to other demands on university budgets. We could double Canada’s current teaching capacity in Chinese studies by 2020 for under $30 million annually nationwide – as long as those funds are directed towards new faculty positions for early and mid-career scholars in Chinese studies. This is a very modest investment in the context of higher education budgets, equivalent to three of the 19 Canada Excellence Research Chairs the Harper government created in 2010.
Pundits and scholars are constantly talking about the need for students in today’s world to “think globally,” and rightly so. But here is the brutal truth: as a sector, higher education in Canada has failed to invest the resources necessary to build strong undergraduate and graduate programs in Chinese studies. If Canada’s future involves China, we must start paying down the China knowledge deficit.
Ryan Dunch is an associate professor of Chinese history and chair of the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Alberta.