Canadian-Chinese Educational Relationship : Looking Back, Around, and Beyond

The year 2010 marks the 40th anniversary of the Canadian-Chinese diplomatic relations. Ever since I came to Canada, I set a goal for myself, that is, to promote Canadian-Chinese educational exchanges and cooperation. With such a standing, I couldn’t help reflect on the Canadian-Chinese educational relationship, and found it evolving along an interesting and unique trajectory. Understandably, I am keen to post my reflections before 2010 is gone.

The Past: from unilateral to bilateral patterns

Canadian-Chinese educational collaboration started shortly after the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1970. In the 20th century, Canadian-Chinese educational cooperation happened mostly in the form of overseas development programs from the Canadian side, featuring a strong sense of “internationalism”. It took the form of a one-way or unilateral pattern, from Canada to China, until the late 1990s.

In this pattern, a number of major projects were launched with Canadian funding. The Canada-China Scholars’ Exchange Program started in 1974, operated and funded by the Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). The Canada-China University Linkage Program (CCULP) was launched in the 1980s, operated and funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), supporting the linkage of 31 institutions, included in which was the highly successful Canada-China Management Education Program(CCMEP) that stimulated the renaissance of management education programs in Chinese universities. Following the success of CCULP, the Special University Linkage Consolidation Program (SULCP) was created by CIDA in the 1990s, within its Country Development Policy Framework (CDPF) for China, adopted in 1994. SULCP supported 11 linkage projects involving 25 Canadian and more than 200 Chinese universities, teaching hospitals, schools, and governmental and non-governmental agencies. The combined span of CCULP and SULCP (1985-2001) “coincided with a period of pivotal change in Chinese society”. These programs, encompassing disciplines ranging from health to education, environment, minority area development, engineering and agriculture, assisted Chinese universities to “improve their capacity to respond to China’s development needs” (AUCC, 2001, p. 3).

Altogether, CIDA has invested over $250 million in higher education for China since the early 1980s. In the 25 years of collaboration, over 100 institutional linkages and sub-projects were created and funded. In addition, more than 37,000 Chinese scholars, researchers and students were educated in Canada and have since become leaders in their disciplines and institutions (Klabunde, 2009). Indeed, apart from Soviet Union in the 1950s (Orleans, 1987), it is hard to find any other country that has assisted the development of China’s higher education at a comparable scale and with such generosity. The approach was also unique, in terms of pairing universities and encouraging them to serve China’s strategic development needs.

Since the early 2000s, Canada-China educational collaboration has become a bilateral process. The Canadian federal government continued to provide educational aid to China, but on a much smaller scale. In 2005, China was officially dropped from CIDA’s list of “Countries of Focus,” and so Canada’s agenda for educational aid. In the meantime, Canadian colleges and universities started to be increasingly active and to dominate the area of Canadian-Chinese educational collaboration. Many Canadian colleges and universities have been providing academic and professional development programs of various kinds for Chinese partners and professionals. Unlike the previous development projects, these programs are now mostly contracted and paid for by the Chinese side. In other words, Canadian institutions are now benefiting from an increasingly mutual process: they disseminate Canada-based knowledge to the Chinese side, and make some profit out of the knowledge transfer.

What still remain to be developed more fully are the collaborative research opportunities. China is now ambitious enough to lift a few dozen of their top universities to world standing, by pouring in research dollars into these universities and intensifying their research activities. Their research budget on average is currently approaching that of Association of American Universities (AAU) member institutions. Between 2002 and 2007, China recorded the fastest growth in R & D intensity (51% in terms of GERD/GDP ratio), resulting in China’s world share of GERD (Gross Domestic Expenditure on R & D) leapt from 5.0% in 2002 to 8.9% in 2007 (UNESCO, 2010). There should be future possibilities for joint research projects among Chinese and Canadian universities.

The Present: Canada lags behind the competitors

The year 2010 also witnesses the accelerating shift of global economic power from West to East. Canada was among the earliest countries in the West to recognize China. The Trudeau government established diplomatic relations with China in 1970, nine years ahead of the US, and almost three years before the UK and Australia. Ever since the early 1970s, the Canadian government invested enormous effort and resources in educational collaboration with China, mostly in the form of overseas development, which led to hundreds of institutional linkages, as well as a positive attitude towards Canada among the Chinese. In the new context of global geo-politics, where universities play an increasingly significant role in the global knowledge economy, and China has a much higher profile than it enjoyed in the 1980s, Canada should enjoy reciprocal benefits from the substantive contribution it made in supporting collaboration between Canadian and Chinese universities. However, this is not really the case, and Canada substantially lags behind its competitors (i.e., the US, Australia, UK and even New Zealand) in this market. There are at least two reasons that are identifiable and which may have contributed to this unfortunate situation.

First, there is no permanent agency at the federal level to trace the effect and outcome of the educational collaboration programs and projects in the past, mostly funded at the federal level. Over the years, a number of federal agencies seem to have taken turns playing a leading role in educational aid to China, but none of them was given a permanent mandate to follow them up. When those programs and projects were closed, their effects and influences started to fade away, and the resources accumulated during the process (in particular the networking resources) were gradually lost. The Canadian approach, while not being particularly problematic in the era of overseas development, has become dysfunctional in face of the neo-liberal currents of the internationalization of education, which require networking and niche determination.

Related to this situation, there are almost no efforts devoted to branding Canadian education: “[w]hile the Government of Canada is constrained by its lack of constitutional authority in the delivery of educational services at home, it has been generally absent from the promotion of Canadian education overseas” (Holroyd, 2006, p. 1).Though the newly launched (since 2008) “Pan-Canadian Education Brand,” jointly managed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) and CMEC Secretariat, shows some evidence that Canada has started to put in effort in this realm, Canadian higher education is still in its branding infancy. Consequently many Chinese students regard Canadian higher education as largely a derivative enterprise of the US system, and a second choice when they have no opportunity to go to an American university. Some other competitors, e.g., the UK and Australia, do benefit from and take advantage of their strong promotional efforts.

Canada does not have a national coordinating body, national marketing or any sustained federal investment in marketing Canada as an international education destination. Education is a provincial responsibility according to the Canadian constitution, yet Canadian provinces do not necessarily view this as a major concern. As a result, Canada has been struggling and even suffering over recent years in the international education market. In 2007, the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE) reported Canada had dropped out of the top five destinations for international students (Tibbetts, 2008), and to the 7th place, occupying a share of less than 3% in the international market. This reality will propel Canadian colleges and universities to work much harder to carve out a niche in the international education market, and China, as the top source of world mobile student, is one that Canada simply can’t afford to ignore.

The Future: how to transform Canada’s deficiency into a kind of unique advantage?

Despite the obstacles discussed above, it is not realistic to alter the Canadian constitutional arrangement that places educational affairs under provincial jurisdiction, or create a special national agency (like the British Council) to promote and brand Canadian education worldwide. What is left to Canadians is to be practical and creative. Canada’s lack of a central policy and a central coordinating agency means international outreach is historically left to the provinces, and even more to the individual institutions. Traditionally, Canadians have a natural tendency and strong potential to work from a local level. This is evident with the unique approach of executing CCULP and SULCP, i.e., to pair Canadian and Chinese universities. Notably, initiatives and practices of individual colleges or universities may have an impact and influence nationwide. In this sense, it is crucial to identify, demonstrate and disseminate good and successful local initiatives, strategies and practices, as the model for others, and to bring human agency into full play.

Specific to Canadian-Chinese educational collaboration, I am propelled to make a number of concrete recommendations. First, it is necessary to reopen the old files concerning Canadian-Chinese educational collaboration in the 1980s and 1990s, in particular those concerning university partnerships, and conduct follow-up studies to trace both the legacy and efficacy of these programs. By design, CCULP and SULCP provided a venue in which to adapt Canadian expertise and approaches to the Chinese context in areas where Canada is a world leader, e.g., minority education, bilingual education, agriculture, energy, health, and environment assessment. Ten years after they were all closed, it is important to find out what long term effects the Canadian model has produced on the transition of Chinese society, which has gone through dramatic changes in the recent decade. This work will, to a large extent, re-establish the network among Canadian and Chinese universities, as a sort of extension from the past.

Second, the Canadian and Chinese universities participating in CCMEP, CCULP and SULCP were encouraged to identify areas of complementary strength in research and development, in order to create a “synergy” that was beneficial to both countries. With the rapid changes in the social and economic landscapes of both nations, it is important to explore what new “synergies” are emerging, that could become the foci for future Canadian-Chinese university linkage projects. From there, diligent work must be done to explore the opportunities for collaborative research in the new context. With the significant shift in patterns of Canadian-Chinese educational collaboration, Canadian universities should take advantage of the historical linkage with Chinese partners, as well as the increasing capacity on the Chinese side, and see this shift as an opportunity to collaborate with their Chinese partners in joint-projects that seek innovative science and technology-based solutions to some of the 21st century’s biggest challenges, including clean energy and climate change, food security and agriculture, and public health. According to NESCO (2010), Canada makes now China’s 5th research partner, after the US, Japan, UK and Germany, which means a lot of room for improvement.

Last but not least, given the absence of a national agency in the Canadian context to facilitate and coordinate policies and strategies at federal level, it is imperative to utilize non-governmental organizations and private think-tanks to identify good policy initiatives and practices in educational collaboration with China, as well as the unique aspects and overall strength of Canadian higher education. In general, Canadian higher education is excellent in quality, very affordable, and is a catalyst for social justice. Indeed, some non-governmental organizations such as the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada have set their foot in this field to promote Canadian education, and a Montreal-based private branding company, Bang Marketing, is actually behind the aforementioned “Pan-Canadian Education Brand.” More of these groups should be brought in to make the effort truly successful. Even more importantly, Canadian Chinese educational collaboration should seek to encourage greater private-sector involvement, which would not only broaden the horizon of policy initiatives and strategy choices but also enlarge the resource pool and opportunities for people-to-people engagement.

Note: Major ideas in this post come from my forthcoming book chapter “Canadian-Chinese Education Collaborations: From Unilateral to Bilateral Exchanges,” in Vivienne Poy and Huhua Cao (Eds.), Canadian Foreign Policy in the 21st Century: The China Challenge. Ottawa, Ontario: University of Ottawa Press.

Qiang Zha holds a PhD in Higher Education, earned at OISE/UT. As a Chevening Scholar, he received a Master of Art degree in Comparative Education from the University of London Institute of Education in 1994. In 1996, he was a visiting scholar to the Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong. His research interests include comparative higher/education, international academic relations, globalization and education, internationalization of higher education, East Asian and Chinese higher education, and differentiation and diversity in higher education. In 2004, he was a co-recipient of the UNESCO Palgrave Prize on Higher Education Policy Research, which is sponsored by Palgrave-Macmillan Ltd. He is an Assistant Professor (International Education) in the Faculty of Education, York University.


Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) (2001). Executive Summary. Final Report of the Special University Linkage Consolidation Program (1996-2001). Ottawa, ON: AUCC.

Holroyd, Carin (2006). “Canada Missing Opportunity in the Booming China Education Market.” Canada Asia Commentary, no. 40.

Klabunde, Niels (2009). Translating the Olympic Spirit into a Canadian-Chinese Year of Education and Sciences. Ottawa, Ontario: Canadian Bureau for International Education.

Orleans, Leo (1987). “Soviet Influences on Chinese Higher Education.” In R. Hayhoe and M. Bastid, China’s Education and the Industrialized World: Studies in Cultural Transfer. New York: M.E. Sharpe, 184-198.

Tibbetts, J. (March 2, 2008). “Come to Canada, invent the next Blackberry.” CanWest News Service.

UNESCO (2010). UNESCO Science Report 2010. The Current Status of Science around the World. Paris, France: UNESCO.