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In my opinion

Why Canadian universities should collaborate with Asia

An opportunity exists now, but Canadian players can’t delay.


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).

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  1. Gill / October 24, 2012 at 16:13

    The other obvious point here is that the international education market is very competitive. Many other countries – in particular the US, UK and Australia – are also busy positioning themselves to ride the the wave that is the ongoing economic rise of Asia and India

  2. Peter Eglin / October 24, 2012 at 17:15

    The sentiments expressed, and presuppositions underpinning, the authors’ proposal are obnoxious and antithetical to the academic mission of universities. The obeisance before power (Asia “will likely dominate higher education in the not too distant future”) and money (“The massive investment in higher education in a host of Asian countries is nothing short of breathtaking”) is grotesque. The idea that academics should lend themselves to the task of cultivating more so-called “top universities” so as to compete better in the “global marketplace” is a betrayal of the point and purpose of the university itself. (I say this with complete respect for my colleagues in Asian universities, against whom I bear no animus whatsoever. It’s the Canadian neoliberal agenda for higher education against which I rail.)

  3. Brian Doonan / October 24, 2012 at 21:47

    Another important point to consider is remuneration when discussing joint Asian ventures. Being employed (and paid) by a Western institution while working alongside Asian collogues is one thing, but expecting a fair wage (under the perspective of the cost of living outside Asia) for services rendered from an Asian institution is another since the pay scale differs so dramatically in comparison. Cost of living and salary is typically far lower in Asia. In the latter scenario, you might find yourself undercutting your bottom-line.

  4. Joseph Mathews / December 10, 2012 at 01:43

    The key principle is harnessing personal connections of Canadians who are currently studying or working in Asian countries to establish long term economic, social and cultural ties. As the underlying essence is to build on the Canadian brand,the first hand international experience through academic exchanges, research placements and internships, twinning programmes etc. would be an ideal option.

    India is building a National Knowledge Network with a focus of more than $20 billion investments in educational institutions, research centres. An example is the Schulich School of Business of York University where the MBA curriculum is offered to Indian students through an Indian partner with the students completing the program in Toronto.

  5. David / January 1, 2013 at 11:47

    A counterpoint:

    1. Hurun Wealth Report, the de facto guide to China’s most powerful and their elite, showed that Canada was the #1 country they wanted to immigrate to.

    2. And boy, do they want to emigrate from China. When asked, a stunning 60% of them responded that they were already making concrete plans for immigration to Western countries(which was basically 90% of all countries when asked) or were thinking about it seriously.

    3. Chinese, in particular, student enrollment at North American universities has exploded.

    4. Finally, there is no reason to think that Western domination on the best universities will continue, HOWEVER, there is no reason to believe that Asia will completely dominate those lists either. To build a world class university, you need to attract people from all over the world. Throwing tons of money at the problem isn’t nearly enough. Anyone who has been following the debate on school results in America knows this quite well.

    5. Will Chinese Universities be able to attract the best faculty from around the world, not just the West? Well, English is the global language of the world. While there are officially around 300 million ‘English learners’ in China, it is mostly about rote learning of a few phrases for the gaokao(the national exam in China). Once the exam is passed, any passing knowledge in English(forget verbal ability) is effectively killed for the vast majority of them.

    A good example is Korea. Sure, it has good universities, but compare it to the UK, which still has more top quality universities.

    Japan also has great universities, but again, see the previously mentioned point for Korea.

    There’s a good report about by an Indian-American, no less, which showed that while Asian countries produced tons of grads, this is especially true in India, quite a lot of them were counted as ‘college educated’ despite 2 year online college diplomas.

    The point is that it is complacent to think that Western universities will continue to dominate so thoroughly as they had, but there is no reason to panic. Money isn’t all it takes. You need a welcoming culture too, and will highly homogenous China be able to adapt to bringing in people from all over the world to its universities?

    The Korea example shows that while the domestic student body is enough to produce quite a few excellent universities, it isn’t enough to break into the world class.

    Canada and other Western countries, with a more tolerant and liberal culture, has that advantage.

    Finally, it’s quite dumb to think of universities as gateways to wealth creation. The point of universities should not be economic growth(although that will happen anyway), the point is to solve the hardest problems humanity faces. And to do that, you need to be able to draw on people from all over the globe, not just your own ethnic ghetto. Can Asian nations do that?

    So far, they haven’t.

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