Upon arrival to Chongqing, we had the opportunity to visit some of Sichuan’s best academic institutions: Southwest University and Chongqing University. During our visit to Southwest University we were lead in a tour across the campus on a trolley where we noticed many physical differences compared to institutions back home in Canada - the first being that many facilities like basketball and tennis courts that were located outdoors. One of the highlights of the first school visit was getting a chance to sit in on a real lecture from an international relations professor about the past, present and future of Chongqing. It really helped us understand the reason behind the rapid economic and population growth of the city.
Another aspect of the visit that really opened our eyes was getting a chance to hear from high school students about their perspectives on education in China, specifically the focus on traditional learning (lecture based) over experiential and extra-curricular learning that most Canadian institutions embrace. Although schools here offer extra-curricular programs like Model UN and spelling bees, the amount of extracurriculars offered are fewer and the attitude towards students participating in them is more reward-based (from good academic grades) rather than as a part of a holistic post-secondary experience as found in Canadian universities. After presenting our education partners and fielding questions from the students assembled at both universities, we discovered there was a strong preference towards enrolling in technical programs such as engineering, architecture and other STEM fields.
Something that took us by surprise was the rigour of Chinese secondary school curriculums and the general attitude towards the value of university here in China. In China, the final year exam that all students are required to write as part of the post-secondary entrance evaluation, known as 'gao kao’, forms the curriculum base for all classes throughout secondary school. Students spend years studying for this exam and the lead up to writing it can be a time of significant stress for Chinese students. However in Canada, there is no national post-secondary evaluation exam and though class exams can also pose stressful study times in students’ lives, the assessment is based on a term’s worth of information rather than the students’ learning in several subjects over the course of their secondary school career. Upon successfully completion of the ‘gao kao’ and acceptance to university, Chinese students find post-secondary school much easier academically and higher graduation rates support their anecdotal evidence.
Having one on one conversations and directly interacting with secondary and post-secondary students opened up our team's eyes to the challenges and opportunities for Chinese students looking to study in Canada and Canadian students looking to study in China. For Chinese students wishing to study in Canada, one of the attractions is financial aid for tuition and lodging offered through federal and provincial government programs, community organizations and institutions themselves. Complimenting their Chinese education with a Western based degree is also of value (either at the bachelors, masters or technical level) as employers in China or abroad typically view experience in both systems highly valuable. Furthermore, many Chinese students looking to study abroad see work experience in another country following graduation as highly valuable (whether or not they plan to immigrate there permanently). Canada boasts an advantage in this area through the federal ‘Experience Canada’ program which offers two-year temporary work permits to eligible international graduates with the time spent in Canada counting towards a permanent residency application. Not many Chinese students or education officials are aware of this program however, so as a country we need to be doing more to promote this program which will attract international students from across China. Finally, as extracurriculars are not emphasized as much in Chinese schools, the opportunities available in Canadian institutions is highly attractive to Chinese students.
For Canadian students wishing to study in China, one of the challenges they may face is the culture shock to the food, customs and the language barrier present in Chongqing. Though an international education is similarly looked upon favourable by most Canadian employers, Canadian students should do due diligence as some degrees, specifically those governed by professional associations in Canada (medical, accounting, etc) are not internationally recognized or accredited. With the focus on technical and STEM degrees in China, Canadian students looking to pursue an education in the social sciences or humanities may also find their options in China limited.
All in all, although there are many differences and similarities that we found while touring the campuses of these Chinese universities, both countries offer unique opportunities not found at home and all students agree that going abroad for your education is a great way to push yourself outside of your comfort zone to experience different learning styles and cultures.