After two trade missions to Asia in as many months, Prime Minister Stephen Harper signalled that Canada’s economic future should be less reliant on the United States and more focused on opportunities with Asia. A number of recent reports have underscored the economic benefit to Canada of increasing trade with Asia, and the new task force report for the federal government entitled International Education, a Key Driver of Canada’s Future Prosperity speaks to the importance of positioning and branding Canada’s higher education internationally.
These arguments and analyses suggest that we should think carefully about how Canada’s colleges and universities could engage effectively with their Asian counterparts. Right now, Canada, and much of the rest of the world, measures the worth of its universities by a set of metrics largely shaped by U.S. models. But as Yale University president Richard Levin notes, within a relatively short time Asian universities will be among the best in the world. There is considerable controversy in Asia about whether the American model is the best way to serve the economic and social requirements of their countries. This disquiet provides a significant opportunity for Canada to link its postsecondary system to a part of the world that will likely dominate higher education in the not too distant future. The massive investment in higher education in a host of Asian countries is nothing short of breathtaking. China is investing billions annually to raise the world status of nearly 100 of its universities. Consider, For example:
- the annual budget for Tsinghua University in Beijing has reached an eye-popping $1.8 billion US this year;
- over the next 10 years, China expects to increase university enrolments by 25 to 40 percent;
- Taiwan is investing the equivalent of $3.4 billion in additional funding over 10 years for just 12 of its 64 public universities to increase their competitiveness and drive a number of them into the ranks of the world’s top 100;
- Singapore invests 20 percent of its annual budget in education and strategic research and development;
- Macao, a Special Administrative Area of China since 1997, is investing $1 billion in a new campus for its premier university – on a site in mainland China offered to it by the central Chinese government. The campus, to be open in just three years, is accompanied by an aggressive program of faculty recruiting;
- in 2010, India proclaimed its intent to increase the number of world renowned institutes of technology from seven to 16.
Why is this an opportunity for Canada? Asians like the welcoming and modest attitude and style of Canadians. As the 2012 report by the Council of Canadian Academies on the state of science and technology in Canada revealed, researchers in China and Korea have a “notable and growing” affinity for publishing with Canadian collaborators. Asians also recognize and appreciate the significance that a number of Canadian universities have achieved world-class status. And, perhaps most importantly, Canada’s vibrant and extensive Asian communities, especially in Toronto and Vancouver, provide an obvious welcome and effective link to many Asian communities.
What does Canada need to do to further its engagement with higher education in Asia?
First, it must recognize that there is potential even beyond China and India. Malaysia, Korea, Indonesia, Viet Nam, Thailand and the Philippines are also moving aggressively on higher education and provide important opportunities for collaborations and engagement with Canadian counterparts. Also, since Asian countries are planning collaboratively – 10 Southeast Asia nations participate in the Association of South East Asia Nations – Canada must think holistically and strategically about the entire region. As it already recognizes in its trade and economic policies, Canada must diversify beyond an almost singular focus on the United States. By 2050, Asia’s population is expected to reach 5 billion and 35 percent of world GDP. Canada cannot afford to lose the opportunity to affiliate with a part of the world that by many indices will significantly influence, if not dominate, global affairs.
Second, Canada should palpably participate in the vibrant discussion within Asia’s higher education sector about how to reshape the nature, purposes and processes of higher education. It is clear that Asians, once exposed to what is going on in Canada, are motivated to learn from the Canadian experience. In turn, Canadians have much to learn from their counterparts in Asia. The action in higher education will inevitably move from the U.S. and Europe to Asia. It’s already underway and Canada is well advised to affiliate with their agenda.
Finally, Canada should recognize that the limited number of Canadian universities that have attained world-class standing represent the foundation, and often the initial point of intersection, between the two regions. Canada must preserve its current slate of top 100 universities and is well advised to drive some of its near contenders to that status, a concern underscored by the most recent Times Higher Education World University Rankings. The prominence and economic power of Asia allows it to be very selective. Asians recognize and will work with the best. Through engagement of its top universities, Canada will engage other institutions, thereby uplifting its own higher education sector.
In the global marketplace, Canada cannot be just about oil, gas and minerals. It has fine educational institutions, brains and ideas. These are the currencies – as much as commodities – around which the world will organize itself. Canada has a chance, but it cannot delay.
Harvey Weingarten is president of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario and president emeritus of the University of Calgary. Da Hsuan Feng is senior vice-president, global affairs, planning and evaluation, of National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan and former vice-president, research and economic development, of the University of Texas (Dallas).