Schools considered key to cementing Asia trade ties

Canada-China business group looks to education to promote trade, boost investment

The Canada China Business Council is promoting stronger ties between educational institutions in this country and overseas as a way of bolstering trade  | Shirinkin Yevgeny/Shutterstock

The Canada China Business Council (CCBC), one of the main private non-profit industry associations spearheading trade promotion between the two countries, is turning its attention to the education sector.

The shift resulted in two events in Vancouver in early February. A reception focused on connecting the educational institutions of the two countries, as well as promoting networking by alumni of schools with Canada-China links, took place on February 8 at Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) downtown campus. That was followed by a February 9 fundraising luncheon for Educating Girls of Rural China (EGRC), a Vancouver philanthropic group that has put 845 girls through school since the organization launched in 2005.

While the CCBC has always emphasized education, officials say it has noticed a recent rise in its membership of educational institutions and players, to 44 members, or 13% of CCBC’s overall membership. That ties education with financial institutions as being first overall among sector representation at CCBC.

As such, a renewed focus on the sector is appropriate given Chinese students’ contribution to the Canadian economy, estimated to be as high as $4 billion a year, said CCBC executive director Sarah Kutulakos.

“[The education sector] is one of our biggest export sectors,” Kutulakos said. “It’s very significant, because the students who come pay higher tuition rates than domestic students, they make purchases, and their families come to visit.”

In addition to the financial gain foreign students bring to industries like services, housing, food and travel, Kutulakos said there’s the more abstract benefit of the students’ familiarity with Canadian values and products, which can give Canadian businesses better access to the Chinese market once those students return overseas. The CCBC is planning an annual award and recognition dinner for Chinese alumni of Canadian schools, starting in the coming year.

“What better way to show people what’s important in Canada than to train them here?” Kutulakos said, noting SFU’s collaboration with a Chinese college four years ago on a joint communications and media program. “That is a very tricky field, with everything being so controlled in China. So giving students in that sector access to our own methods for how you approach communications and media is very good.”

The reverse, she noted, is also true: Canadian students studying in Asia would facilitate this country’s trade with China and other markets such as South Korea and Japan.

Other groups have also stepped up such efforts in recent years. The British Columbia Council for International Education has worked closely with markets like China and Japan to promote scholarship programs to bring B.C. students to Asian schools. Meanwhile, groups like the BC Studies in China Alumni Network  are working to gather graduates of such programs in the province and connect them with businesses that have cross-Pacific dealings.

Meanwhile, the effort is also increasing on the philanthropic front. Chinese leader Xi Jinping said late last year that China has launched a major rural-area revitalization initiative, focusing on closing the income and lifestyle gap between wealthy urban regions and traditional farming communities. Along with improving infrastructure and public services, a focus on improving education in rural areas is a pillar of the plan.

The top Chinese official in Vancouver, Consul General Tong Xiaoling, attended the CCBC fundraising luncheon for the EGRC, noting the Vancouver charity’s key role in Beijing’s rural modernization drive.

“As a big supplement to the government’s efforts, philanthropic organizations also contributed a lot in the last decade, including EGRC,” Tong said. “It ensures future generations joining the work force will be equipped to reach high school or even four-year college educations…. Because of the unevenness of the development in China, and because of the traditional preference of sons over daughters, many girls are deprived of their equal access to education.”

Among EGRC’s backers are some B.C. business heavyweights such as Canfor Corp. (TSX:CFP) CEO Don Kayne, who spoke of his work with the EGRC as a way for Canadian corporations to contribute to the communities where they do business, whether domestic or abroad.

“I was looking for an opportunity to give something back to China – our company does a lot of business in China – and we wanted to figure out what we can do to try to help some of the things there,” Kayne said. “To see some of these women and the challenges they face first-hand, it was an experience I will never forget. I want to have the chance to provide any support we can for them to get the educational opportunities that they need but don’t get to receive like we do in Canada.”

Kutulakos said such philanthropic efforts, while important in their own right, also help strengthen Canada’s business ties with China.

“It’s one of the best examples of showing, not telling,” she said. “When you have a Canadian institution that’s taking rural Chinese women to school, this is a great case of putting our money where our mouth is.… Change happens in manageable steps, by showing people how we do things.”