Recruiting Chinese Students : A Work In Progress

Recruiting Chinese students: A work in progress

More than 60 Canadian high schools, colleges and universities were represented over the weekend at the Beijing leg of the China International Education Exhibition Tour.

Its a market worth millions of dollars, and education experts say Canada should have a larger share

Mark MacKinnon
Beijing From Tuesday's Globe and Mail
Published on Monday, Mar. 15, 2010 9:52PM EDT
Last updated on Tuesday, Mar. 16, 2010 7:48AM EDT

Canada is being sold two very different ways this year to the hundreds of thousands of Chinese students and parents considering paying for an education abroad. In a small room on the sideline of a jam-packed education fair in Beijing this weekend, Canadian embassy officials were making an earnest PowerPoint presentation to a crowd of 70 students and parents, going over topics such as the high standard of living in Canada, tuition costs and the application process for student visas.

Fifty metres away, in a main hall that was overflowing with jostling students and parents, the Jin Jielie Group an agency that specializes in matching Chinese students with foreign schools was using less conventional lure as it handed out information packages about Canadian schools: a quintet of shapely models in tiny silver dresses who paraded back and forth along a lit catwalk, waving scarves covered in red maple leaves and the word Canada.

Zhu Yanmin, vice-president of Jin Jielie Group, argued that Canada needs to get a little flirtier if it wants to attract more Chinese students to its cash-hungry high schools, colleges and universities. More than 13,500 Chinese people received visas to study in Canada in 2008, bringing the total number of Chinese students in the country to more than 42,000.

Those numbers are estimated to have jumped by another 20 per cent last year, but that still represents only a fraction of the nearly half-million Chinese students expected to spend big money this year on a foreign diploma or degree. Its a market potentially worth millions of dollars to high schools, colleges and universities, and education experts say Canada should have a larger share.

While the United States remains the top destination for Chinese students, many say Canada should look at the example of Australia. Despite a population 10 million lower than Canadas, Australian schools enrolled nearly 50,000 new Chinese students for the 2007-2008 school year, bringing the total number of Chinese students in the country to more than 130,000.

If Canadian universities and colleges were more open to Chinese people, more and more Chinese students would choose Canada as a destination, Mr. Zhu said as the girls behind him shimmied and waved the maple leaf for a crowd of onlookers. Right now, Australia and the United States are in front of Canada and other countries on [international] education policies and student visa policies.

Recruiters at the fair noted that Australian universities were forced to get more serious after the government slashed their budgets while loosening restrictions on foreign students several years ago. A similar moment may be coming for Canadian institutions: Enrolment at secondary schools is down across the country, foreshadowing a drop in university applications.

China, which produces far more secondary graduates than its universities can handle, provides a potential solution. Last year, just 62 per cent of the more than six million Chinese students who passed the notoriously competitive gaokao entrance exam found a place in a domestic university.

The last year of senior high school in China is basically preparation for the university entrance exam. Id like to send my daughter to Canada instead for English training, said Zhao Yuliang, a 42-year-old businessman who was interviewing schools about why theyd be best for his 16-year-old daughter, and recording their answers on video.

The owner of a clothing factory, Mr. Zhao said money is no object for him, acknowledging that the end goal is for the whole family to immigrate to Canada.

We are a well-off family. And we dont worry much about how much it costs for her to study abroad as long as she will have a good future. Actually, she has a little brother and we plan to send him abroad, too, if she is successful in Canada.

More than 60 Canadian high schools, colleges and universities were represented over the weekend at the Beijing leg of the China International Education Exhibition Tour (it will move through four other Chinese cities before the end of the month). Dale Yellowlees, China admissions officer for the University of Saskatchewan, said that while Canada lacks a national strategy, the schools themselves have also failed to be aggressive enough: The reality is that there are not very many Canadian universities that could be seen to be out hustling the way Australian universities are out hustling.

Mr. Zhu of the Jin Jielie Group said that while Canada has taken steps in recent years to make the student visa process less onerous, its still far harder to get permission to study in Canada than in other countries. Britain, for instance, asks only to see financial statements from the previous 28 days in order to determine whether the student has the financial backing to pursue an education there. Canada demands 12 months of bank statements.

In recent years, the Canadian government has moved to reduce the barriers for foreign students coming to Canada, simplifying the visa process and introducing a new fast-track immigration process for graduates of Canadian universities. Warming relations between Beijing and Ottawa should also help: Last year, China finally granted Canada the long-withheld approved destination status for its tourists, making it easier for parents to visit children studying in Canadian schools.