CANADA: China signs pacts but faces a conundrum

The Chinese government appears to be taking a risk: its need to increase the number of its university professors while boosting its research capabilities means education contingents such as the one that arrived at the CBIE conference in Toronto will surely reappear.

Another two groups of university administrators will again do the meet-and-greet as the Middle Kingdom continues to push for bilateral partnerships with foreign universities.

Put aside the full-on courting by Canadians for memoranda of understanding, and the enthusiasm by Chinese institutions to set up academic and student exchange programmes, and you have a country building up one resource - its academic strength - while it risks losing another - its students.

The students, those earning the credentials the country greatly desires, decide more often than not to stay in their host country after completing their studies abroad. In 2008, 180,000 tertiary students left China to study overseas but less than 40%, or only 69,300, returned.

After her presentation on study-abroad scholarships, which included the statistics on how few Chinese return after getting a foreign degree, Yang Xinyu, Deputy Secretary-General of the China Scholarship Council, put on a brave face and offered what sounded like a concession speech when interviewed.

"Almost all of them will eventually come back," Yang said, referring to the students who, on paper at least, do not return. Aside from the 12,000 scholarships handed out, her council has set up several programmes to try to bring back students who would otherwise stay overseas.

She points to the latest rise in the numbers of returnees - a 55% rise from the previous year in those deciding to put their degrees to work in China. But that still leaves a lot of Chinese setting up shop in other countries.

Nevertheless, domestic study has increased by leaps and bounds, with 27 million students enrolled in some form of higher education. That represents a 23% enrolment rate for the country, up from 2% in 1978 and 0.3% in 1949.

With so much domestic study ¬- there are 768 public universities and 48 private, along with 1,215 public vocational colleges ¬- there appear to be enough places to train those who will take care of many of China's future economic needs. But only 11% of Chinese professors have PhDs and, with countries such as Canada more than ready to meet their professor-training and other research partnership needs, China will continue to look outward.

When all that human capital goes abroad, the human part will inevitably get attached to the host country and its opportunities. That is especially so when Canada sweetens the pot and offers incentives that work at cross purposes with the Chinese, such as programmes that allow easier routes to immigration for these are people who are valuable as well to the host country.

"The Chinese have had limited success with getting them to return. The fact of the matter is that people do want to stay," Ivy Lerner-Frank, Trade Commissioner in Canada's embassy in Beijing told University World News.

For Yang, sending students to study abroad is no less risky than in the past, when China lacked the economic opportunities it currently enjoys.

"Thirty years ago, Deng Xiaoping said, 'We must send students abroad'. At that time he was not afraid at all and was confident that they would gradually come back."