It’s 5:30 p.m. Friday evening and the Graduate Students Association at 2030 Mackay is buzzing with the sound of students winding down after the week’s lectures. The clink of glasses and hubbub of voices spill out from the lounge into the narrow corridor where a path is being worn to the kitchen for refreshments. Meanwhile, in the basement, another type of social activity is underway. Boxes with video cassettes are stacked high in the corner of a small room and the merchandise is being off-loaded and arranged in neat rows on a table. The thud of footsteps on the staircase announces the arrival of the first punters.
The Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) provides a support structure for the second largest international student group at Concordia; students from the People’s Republic of China. Organizing the video exchange is one of their core activities, according to Hai Lin, a former president and prominent figure in the CSSA. Friends and family in mainland China send tapes of favourite films and TV shows to the CSSA who centralise and rent them out to Concordia’s 210 mainland Chinese students.
Lin arrived in Montreal in 1989 as a research assistant to a professor in the electrical engineering department. Before leaving China, he earned a monthly salary of $200 as a microwave engineer in a communications company after completing his master’s in electrical engineering. “Life is easier here,” said the 32-year-old Lin from Beijing, now a permanent resident in Montreal who is married with a well-paid job. “Canadian society is multi-cultural; I really like that,” he adds.
The number of Chinese immigrants at Concordia has risen dramatically in recent years. Claudette Fortier, co-ordinator of the International Students Office, recalled how difficult it was for students to leave China in the years after Tiananmen Square. “China wasn’t letting students leave directly after high school,” she says. “Only post graduate students with bursaries or research/teaching assistantships could come at that time.”
The undergraduate Chinese students have currently outnumbered the graduates, reflecting the increased openness of its Communist regime.
“If tuition fees were free, everybody would come,” says Cao, formerly a Teaching English as First Language professor in China who came to Concordia in 1995 to study in applied linguistics. Now a financial securities adviser, Cao still lends a helping hand at the CSSA.
“There is more freedom [in Canadian universities], more flexibility, more room for creativity,” he says. He described how his role as a teacher in China consisted in doling out information to students who passively took notes. “There was no debate [and] no group discussions,” adds Cao.
There are, however, other reasons why Chinese students come to Canada. Chinese universities have become so overcrowded that there is simply not enough room for all those who wish to go onto higher education.
“The competition in China is very high,” says Lin. “In most Chinese provinces, only 30 per cent of students can go to university. In the best provinces, the rate is still only 50 per cent.” The result: those fortunate enough to afford $80, 000 over a period of four years in which to obtain a degree come to Canada or the U.S. and their numbers are swelling.
“China is exploding in terms of its economy,” says Tom Swift, international recruiter for the John Molson school of business, who has travelled to China promoting Concordia as a centre of excellence for business studies.
The engineering job in Beijing that paid Lin two hundred dollars in 1989 now commands a salary of $1,500 and it is now easier to find a job in China than in North America. Little wonder why Concordia and other Canadian universities have devised strategies to woo Chinese students into their midst.
One hundred and forty-one million young people left secondary school in China in 2000; a dizzying prospective market with exponentially growing spending power. The progeny of the one-child policy, introduced in 1979, has come of university-going age, meaning that more parents can afford to send their children to be educated abroad.
“There is tremendous interest in having that child highly educated,” says Swift. “Parents are putting all their resources behind that one child.”
China is just one of 130 countries represented at Concordia, which prides itself on the diversified origins of its student body. The CSSA has not yet received official Concordia association status but provides invaluable assistance to Chinese students. Lin told the story of a student whose wife and three children were injured in a car crash two years ago. The CSSA members rallied round and raised more than $2,000 to help him with the medical costs.
Concordia’s student population has become increasingly diversified as we emerge into the twenty-first century. The response from international students has grown progressively optimistic and the university will inevitably become highly regarded globally and locally.
The CSSA can be contacted through their web site at http://www.geocities.com/concordia_cssa/ or call: 848-3528. Their office is located at H-733-5.