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Stable university funding vital for Alberta’s future growth

Province’s dealings with Asia just one example of how arts education helps

This year marks 50 years of Chinese teaching at the University of Alberta and 30 years since the founding of the Department of East Asian studies, which I am privileged to chair. The University of Alberta can claim a proud legacy as the first Canadian university between Toronto and Vancouver to offer courses and degree programs in East Asian studies.

Educating Alberta students to a high level of proficiency in Asian languages and cultures is vitally important to this province’s future. If student demand is any guide, Albertans agree. They are filling up our classes in record numbers, as well as other courses related to East Asia in disciplines like history, art, economics and political science.

In her few months in office, Premier Alison Redford has reminded Albertans several times of the importance of Asia for Alberta’s future – and she is absolutely right. The East Asian region includes four of the world’s top 20 economies in gross GDP terms. Canada is 15th on that list, above Taiwan but below South Korea, and of course dwarfed by China and Japan.

It also includes two nuclear states, one of them a notoriously unpredictable dictatorship: North Korea. The languages and cultures of China, Japan and Korea are among the most complex, ancient and fascinating on the planet. Today at the University of Alberta, we teach Chinese, Japanese and Korean languages as well as courses on the literatures and cultures of the region to over 2,000 undergraduate students per year. We could easily fill even more classes if we had funding for them.

Add this to the strong and growing demand for Chinese and Japanese in the K-12 school system – in which our government has invested generously and to its credit – and it is clear that Albertans know the value of understanding East Asia. Alberta graduates in East Asian studies have followed many career paths in Asia, Canada and beyond. One of them is the best-known simultaneous translator in China, where he has translated for government leaders including George W. Bush and Stephen Harper.

Others run businesses or consultancies in Asia, or work in law, education, government or the financial sector. For all this record of success, how-ever, the number of faculty positions in East Asian studies today is pitifully low – well below what is needed to keep up with student demand and also well below what the importance of the region would require.

The rapid growth in enrolments has not been matched by new faculty positions and this year we are teaching twice as many classes and twice as many students as we were a decade ago, yet with fewer faculty members. Now, as the province grapples with competing demands on the public purse, further pressure on the university budget is likely and the burden of cuts will be felt most heavily in programs like East Asian studies and other arts departments that lack large donor pools or alter-native sources of revenue.

Tough times may mean tough decisions, but cutting back on the arts, humanities and social sciences is perilous public policy for very practical reasons. In our age of economic globalization and political uncertainties, producing graduates with a broad global vision and in-depth knowledge of one or two foreign languages or scholarly disciplines is a vital hedge against instability.

When changes to the international order do come, they come suddenly and from unexpected quarters, as we saw in 2011 when the public suicide of a street hawker in Tunisia sparked the overthrow of governments across the region. What our economies, corporations and governments need at such moments are people with expertise and contacts in the languages and cultures of the new hot-button region-or else people with the skills, experience and adaptability to learn them.

Applied knowledge goes out of date very quickly in some fields. Alberta does need university graduates in applied fields, but we also need lifelong learners with strong research and communication skills, and with the confidence to say: “I can learn anything.” This is where arts graduates excel as adaptable learners, particularly if they have taken advantage of foreign language and study abroad opportunities in their degree programs.

However, if funding shortfalls com-promise the arts, humanities and social sciences they weaken Alberta’s capacity for informed engagement with the 21st-century world. East Asian studies illustrates the problem that can result from an unstable funding environment in which important areas of learning are starved of the resources needed to maintain their programs, let alone grow and develop.

And East Asian studies is only one example. Reinvestment in higher education is needed to maintain strong pro-grams in the arts, humanities and social sciences and that is vital for Alberta’s future.

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