Skip navigation
In my opinion

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.

Misplaced priorities

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.

Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Dr. Tony DiPetta / December 12, 2012 at 12:03

    While it seems that Canadian higher education is reducing its interest in and capacity for Chinese Studies there are pockets of innovation and increasing capacity such as the Confucius Institute for Brock University and the Centre for Continuing Teacher Education at Brock University. Working togteher these Brock units have developed the first of its kind Internation Languages-Mandarin Teacher Training course that certifies K-12 teachers in the province in teaching Mandarin as a Second Language. Moreover, the Confucius Insitute at Brock works diligently and creatively to bring Chinese scholars to Canada and to send Canadian scholars to China. These programs not only build interest in Chinese studies but also help build capacity in terms of the new scholars who will move Chinese studies forward in Canada.

  2. Fanli JIa / December 12, 2012 at 13:26

    Two issues were reflected after reading this article. The problem is not only about the language or linguistic level, but also about the cultural competence. Basic values, norms, and cultural practices need to be better introduced, interpreted and integrated into Canadian culture. However, such empirical research is deficient in Canada. In the department of psychology at the Wilfrid Laurier University, we are conducting cross-cultural research to explore cultural similarities and differences about identity, moral personality and motivations between Canadian and Chinese. Moreover, a process of cultural assimilation needs to be transferred into immigrant settlings because issues of language and cultural identity loss were inevitable, even though multiculturalism is encouraged.

  3. Benny Quay / December 12, 2012 at 14:17

    Get off the ivory tower. The best way to learn about China and the Chinese is to actually have Chinese friends.

    Anglo-Franco Canadians are such nice people but, like all the ethnics, they hardly interact beyond their tribe.

    We should scrap the Multiculturalism Policy. It promotes tribalism of the worst kind.

  4. Michael Connelly / December 12, 2012 at 16:13

    It may be, as Professor Dunch claims, that Canadian universities are moving backwards as far as knowledge of China is concerned. But I am not sure that this claim is accurate for Canadian education as a whole. Even if it is, there are so many initiatives and ongoing success stories that I am inclined to think that one of the real Canadian educational needs in this matter is to identify, support, and explore the potential of existing Canadian initiatives with respect to China. The Government of Canada tabled a report, International Education: A Key Driver of Canada’s Future Prosperity in October, 2012. Amit Chakma, President and Vice Chancellor, University of Western Ontario and Chair of the Expert Advisory Panel which drafted the report, remarked from Beijing while on a trade delegation with Prime Minister Harper that his main challenge as President was “domestic, try to convince people that internationalization is important to our students”. He is essentially saying that the academic will is there. What is needed is public education. In Professor Dunch’s home town the Edmonton Chinese Bilingual Education Association reports that approximately 2,000 primary and secondary school students are learning to speak and write Mandarin in five elementary schools, four junior high schools and three senior high schools. The University of Windsor has a program, directed by Professor Xu and supported by the President’s Priority Fund, for preservice teacher education exchange between the University of Windsor and Southwest University in China in cooperation with the Greater Essex County District School Board. In Toronto the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto (OISE/UT) in cooperation with the University of Windsor and the Toronto District School Board has a Sister School Program pairing Toronto schools with Chinese schools. Professor Di Petta, in response to Professor Dunch, describes a Brock University program operated through the Confucius Institutes. There are a dozen or so of these Institutes throughout Canada. Professor Hayhoe at OISE/UT is holding a conference and writing a book on forty years of CIDA supported Canada-China university relationships in which there has been extensive reciprocity between Chinese and Canadian universities. In many of the initiatives of the sort noted above education is operating on a broad based front involving university faculty and administrators, school board administrators, teachers, and school students, and teacher educators and teacher candidates. My hope is that response to Professor Dunch’s article reaches beyond the identification of a problem for universities to the multiple rather hidden educational initiatives underway that address, or at least relate to, the “China knowledge deficit”.

  5. back2basic / December 12, 2012 at 16:39

    We can tell how good parents are in terms of academic knowledge and civilized manner, by observing their own children’s behaviour.

    Likewise, we can acknowledge the government’s constitution, foreign and national official policies, by observing their countrymen’s daily practices, work habits, and trading characters.

    I guess that western leaders do not practice 10 commandments, neither does Chinese government in terms of Confucius’ wisdom.

    If communist leaders have dedicated their time in wars after wars for more than 50 years, how can you trust their integrity, honesty, left alone their kindness? Why do our Canadian Higher Education leaders, and Conservative government blindly sell Canadian energy (oil) resources, and invest Canadian intellectual resources with Chinese communist government? It is very gullible, selfishness, and naivete to harm western generous spirit in dealing and wheeling with communist. back2basic.