November 25th, 2011
That’s me, about to climb part of the Great Wall the other day. It was a brilliant cold blue-sky day, but I eagerly took up Mao’s challenge, inscribed on a slab of stone at the bottom of the climb: “You’re not a real man if you haven’t climbed the Great Wall.” I am sure he meant to include women, too. The part of the Wall I scaled with my colleague, Leonard Lye from the Faculty of Engineering, is a couple of hours outside the magnificent city of Beijing, well worth the Chairman’s challenge.
Beijing is flat and sprawling, clean on the ground but dirty in the air. It is traffic clogged, bike littered, and LED bright. It is, perhaps more than any other city I know, preparing for the 21st century. Over 20 million people inhabit these streets, and so managing those numbers in safe and civilized ways seems to be a necessarily collective enterprise. Citizens here are polite and patient. Their world reaches back into centuries of emperors and revolutions but they are facing the future with ambition and confidence. You can see it in the magnificent architecture of enormous new buildings, the immaculate subway system, the bold shapes of the 2008 Olympic site, and the vast modern acreage of the international airport.
You can certainly see and feel it in the faces of the educated leaders we met today, representatives from top post-secondary ed institutions from all over the country. They came from all over the country into the city to pitch us their programs and to boast about their national and international rankings, to promote their openness to foreign exchanges, joint degree programs, and creative partnerships. They are keen to collaborate not just with Canada but with the world. Although they have looked largely to the US as the destination of choice, they are gradually coming to a realization that perhaps Canada’s universities offer high quality programs, suitable sites for advanced education and training.
Unlike Canada, China promotes a national vision of education. There is a unity of expression and ambition here against which we are practically powerless. It is humbling, to say the least. I had thought for some time that the chief motive of exporting Chinese students to the West was to educate them in and by our ways, to have them acquire skills and knowledge they would not have gained otherwise. Now I see this is only a small part of what’s happening, if that’s at all even a factor. The Chinese education leaders believe that their students need, above all, to experience the world, to learn what life is like beyond China, to study cultures and the languages of others to become better citizens of the world—and better more knowledgeable citizens of China.
Canada lacks this impulse. We are, arguably, too complacent, too comfortable, and too cozy in our environments to think much about venturing into the world to study — not with the same passion and ambition that I have seen in the Chinese in less than a week of being here. The Chinese Scholarship Council, for example, supports thousands of the brightest graduate students a year in their studies abroad. Today I learned that 98% of those students return to China and end up employed in the highest-ranking universities in the country or else running the country itself, dominating the leadership of the Communist Party. Impressive.
It’s so clear that the Chinese have figured out that the key to their future is education. They are rapidly building more and more universities of their own to accommodate their staggering population, and they are committed to educating as many people as possible, rewarding the smartest and most accomplished among them with opportunity and privilege.
About 15 Canadian universities are represented here this week. Our own much more conservative approach to education aside, it is important to be here, first to learn what the scene is all about , second to encourage our own institutions to think more creatively about our own internationalization agendas, and third to encourage the Chinese students we are interviewing here by the hundreds to attend our programs for mutual benefit. Their English is already so well advanced that ESL tests are almost redundant. We can’t really speak our own official languages let alone a trace of Mandarin. Yet the Chinese told us that they expect to be attracting over half a million international –non Chinese– students to China by 2020. The world is turning upside down pretty quickly, and the Chinese seem to be doing most of the tilting. We’ve got a lot to learn. I am not sure we can catch up.