Asia, A Growing Presence in Canadian Universities

Author: Yuen Pau Woo

The growing importance of Asia in the world is affecting every sector of Canadian society, including education. While there has been longstanding interest in the study of Asia and Asian languages in Canadian post-secondary institutions, the most promising development in “Asian studies” in recent years is not the expansion of “area studies” or linguistic/cultural programs, important as they are. Rather, it is in the incorporation of Asia-relevant material into mainstream disciplines and in an expansion of opportunities for study, research, and co-op opportunities in Asia.

An "Asia Census" undertaken by the University of British Columbia in 2010 gathered 352 responses from faculty across the university describing the Asia activities that they were involved in. The most interesting finding was faculty members in Social Sciences and Arts accounted for only about 40% of the responses. The majority of responses came from faculty members in departments such as Sciences, Engineering, Medicine, Education and Nursing. 

Canadians are increasingly aware of the rise of Asia not simply as a growing market for exports, but as a part of a global power shift to emerging economies. The implications of this power shift are profound and they demand a response from government, industry, civil society, and not least, educational institutions. The rise of Asia has meant different things to different universities, from international student revenue source to partnership opportunity to competitive threat.

Asian students in Canada are the most obvious manifestation of the impact on the education sector. Asian nations are among the top sources of international students in Canada with the People’s Republic of China, South Korea, and India in the top five. China is the most important source country, accounting for nearly 50,000 students in Canada in 2009. While the number of students from India is small by comparison, the increase has been remarkable, with a rise of more than four-fold in just three years. A delegation of close to 20 Canadian university presidents travelled to India in late 2010 to encourage this trend, as well as to build research and other partnerships with Indian counterparts.

The growing Asian student presence in Canadian universities (which of course includes many Asian Canadians) influences all aspects of academic and campus life. The near-term socio-cultural impact is important, but it is the longer-term alumni, scholarly, and community connections to Asia -- in all sectors of society – that will leave the most enduring legacies. If the best and the brightest Asian students see Canada as a preferred destination for higher education, chances are that they will in later life also see Canada as a preferred destination for commercial, research, cultural, and diplomatic partnerships.

The long term dividends of international education cannot, however, rest solely on foreign students coming to study in Canada. It also depends on our post-secondary institutions having the courses and programs that embrace global perspectives and offer international study/research/co-op experiences. Canadian students need to go abroad as much as Canadian schools need to welcome foreign students. University of Victoria's Peter Gustavson School of Business is perhaps the leader in this regard, with 85 percent of graduating students having had direct international experience (mostly in Asian countries) as part of their training. As much as Canada is a leading destination for international study, the fact is that China has already overtaken Canada in attracting foreign students, and very few Canadians avail of opportunities to study in China.

In the last decade, there has been a sharp increase in the number of research centers, chairs, and programs focusing on the Asia Pacific. Examples include Masters programs at the University of British Columbia and the University of Toronto; a China Institute at the University of Alberta; a Canada-India Policy centre at the University of Waterloo; and numerous endowed chairs dedicated to Asia-focused topics.

There have also been recent institutional innovations such as the partnership between the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada and Simon Fraser University’s Segal Graduate School of Business in recently establishing the Jack Austin Centre for Asia Pacific Business Studies. The Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa has teamed up with industry organizations to deliver India-focused business education programs.

A number of Canadian universities deliver programs with Asian counterparts, for example Simon Fraser University’s partnership with Zhejiang University in Computer Science (a full dual-degree graduate program) and UBC’s international MBA program that is offered jointly by Jiaotong University. Some have even established overseas campuses, such University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business in Hong Kong, and McGill’s MBA program in Japan. York University’s Schulich School of Business is planning to open a campus in Hyderabad to respond to the demand for MBA programs in India.

Asia-focused programs of the sort described above are not for everyone. However, an understanding of the rise of Asia is increasingly a pre-requisite for Canadians who need to be globally competitive in their field of work. Hence the challenge for post-secondary institutions is not only to further invest in Asia-specific programs, research centers, and chairs, but to also incorporate Asia content into the mainstream disciplines. The future depends on it.

Co-authored by Lia Cosco, a Post-Graduate Research Fellow with the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

This piece also appeared in Embassy Magazine on February 16, 2011.

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