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The push is on to increase study-abroad opportunities in China

University consortium partners with Beijing to remove barriers for Canadians to study there.


For University of Ottawa undergraduate student Min Ji (Esther) Kim, studying in China seemed like an ideal way to round out her education. “China is an emerging country that’s affecting international relations and globalization in the world today,” she said. “As a social sciences student, I thought it would be a great chance to learn about [Chinese] values and culture by being immersed in it, rather than just what we’re taught in Canada.”

Ms. Kim, who is majoring in international development and globalization, with a minor in Asian studies, set off for one of China’s oldest universities, the University of Nanjing, in April 2016. In the classroom, she took courses related to her degree, like Chinese foreign policy and Mandarin; outside of class, she got to know the region’s people and places with the help of enthusiastic locals. Completely enamoured, Ms. Kim didn’t want to go home: “I liked it so much I stayed another semester.”

A new Canada-wide program helped make this possible for Ms. Kim. As one of the first U of Ottawa students to participate in the new Canada Learning Initiative in China, or CLIC, she received financial support that covered her tuition costs, and freed up cash for school trips and activities. “I could really immerse myself in the culture,” she said.

Established in February 2016, CLIC is a consortium of nine of Canada’s U15 universities working with China’s ministry of education to create study abroad opportunities for Canadians in China. Currently led by the University of Alberta, the initiative came about when China’s education ministry approached U of Alberta in 2015 for help increasing the number of Canadian students in China: “We have a huge reputation in China as a leading Canadian university in China-Canada academic relations,” said Cen Huang, U of Alberta’s executive director of international relations and recruitment, and assistant vice-president, international.

Lost opportunities

While plenty of Chinese students come here to study at Canada’s universities (58,509 in 2015-16, according to Statistics Canada), just a small number of Canadians study in China each year (less than 4,000, according to the Canadian Embassy in Beijing). “That suggests to us lost opportunities for Canadian students to expand their worldview and build connections with one of the world’s leading powers,” said Dr. Huang. The CLIC initiative aims to narrow the gap by removing barriers for students, such as travel and tuition costs, credit transfers and language. “The reason CLIC works is because we check boxes off of old challenges,” she said.

The consortium works with China’s education ministry and a growing number of Chinese universities to create courses taught in English or French that meet Canadian standards to ensure students get credit at their home institution. Most CLIC members contribute $50,000 yearly – $10,000 to cover the organization’s administrative costs and $40,000 for travel grants to their own students. The Chinese government waives tuition fees and offers students a stipend worth approximately $600 CAD to support living expenses.

According to Cindy McIntyre, assistant director of international relations at Universities Canada, CLIC is one of many efforts in recent years to build academic collaborations between China and Canada. “CLIC is unique because it’s a consortium working with a number of Chinese universities, and really has potential to be a national program,” she said. “It’s early days yet, but this is something we’d like to see expanded to involve more Canadian institutions, enabling more students to participate. I think it’s a very effective model.”

But Ms. McIntyre feels that national leadership and significant investment from the federal government is ultimately needed to increase student mobility to China. She pointed to the successes of countries like the U.S. and Australia, which have developed targeted programming to significantly boost the number of students abroad in recent years. “A federal lead and significant investment make that happen,” she said.

In December, Canada and China signed a memorandum of understanding in China in support of CLIC, ensuring continued expansion of the program. As well, Prime Minister Trudeau committed $4.1 million over five years to support Canadians studying in China ($2.5 million directed to the Canada-China Scholars Exchange, and $1.6 million to allow undergraduates and master’s students to do internships at the Canadian Embassy and consulates in China). Dr. Huang said these announcements are a welcome acknowledgement of the work CLIC does and of the value of studying abroad.

For David Mulroney, former Canadian ambassador to China, study abroad opportunities in China aren’t just about offering students a well-rounded education – it’s in our national interest. “China is already playing an increasingly important part in Canada’s future,” said Mr. Mulroney, a distinguished fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, and president and vice-chancellor of St. Michael’s College. Travelling to China offers Canadians the best way to study the vast and complex country. “We can’t blithely assume we can get by based on a very cursory knowledge of a place that’s so important. We need a deep and broad understanding.”

But Canadian universities have their work cut out for them when it comes to building academic opportunities in the communist state. “Canadian institutions are negotiating with a Chinese partner that also has to answer to other masters, some of whom may not be apparent,” said Mr. Mulroney. He warns Canada’s postsecondary institutions to proceed slowly and cautiously when building relationships with China: “Build trust, build familiarity, experiment – and experiment in such a way that if the experiment fails, it’s no great disaster to either institution. And, if it succeeds, build on that.”

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  1. Stuart Chambers, Ph.D. / January 30, 2018 at 10:43

    I taught Min Ji (Esther) Kim, and I can tell you she is a role model for all students. She epitomizes the cosmopolitan mindset.

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