Liu Yandong, the state councillor responsible for education, youth and culture and the most powerful female politician in China, did not just pay a friendly visit to Flanders last month. She strengthened the cooperation between the Flemish and Chinese education systems by inaugurating a new Confucius Institute at the University College West Flanders (Howest). Confucius Institutes teach the Chinese language and culture with the support of the Chinese government. Liu also announced the doubling of the number of scholarships for students at the University of Leuven (KUL) from 12 to 25.
These measures are new signs of the growing cooperation between this small region and the world power in the Far East. The West Flemish Confucius Institute is now the third in Flanders, following institutes established in Leuven and Brussels, and it’s one of 340 worldwide.
About 2,500 Chinese students and researchers are currently registered at Flemish colleges and universities, 600 of them at front-runner KUL. The university signed agreements with five top Chinese universities as part of Liu’s visit, which should bring even more Chinese knowledge to Flanders through the platform Leuven EDGE (KUL’s Research and Education Gateway to Europe).
The foundations of the West Flemish Confucius Institute were laid in 2000, when the province concluded a partnership agreement with the province Zhejiang in the southeast of China. Two years ago, Howest began collaborating with the Zhejiang Gongshang University which last October sent a Chinese teacher to provide language courses at the university college. Around 80 students enrolled for a basic study programme in Chinese language and culture, either on the Howest campus in Bruges or Kortrijk.
In 24 lessons of three hours a week, all students learn the basics of the language and the principles of Chinese etiquette. Starting this autumn, the Confucius Institute will provide more specialised courses to different target groups “because businessmen planning to negotiate with Chinese companies have different needs than retired citizens who want to learn a new language as a hobby,” explains Philip Vanhaelemeersch, director of the Confucius Institute at Howest.
Entrepreneurs will, for example, learn how to make a toast to all guests at formal dinners, an important Chinese custom. “We should even practice singing karaoke in class because Chinese business meetings often end in karaoke bars,” smiles Vanhaelemeersch.
Huang Zhonghui, the Chinese teacher at Howest, agrees with the future plans. “After this preparation year, we know the different interests of our students – social customs, food culture, music and history,” she says. “I will be able to provide everyone with the basics in Chinese culture that will be indispensable for them.”
Group T, the International University College Leuven, has had privileged contacts with China since 1993 because it provides English language engineering studies from the first year. At the Confucius Institute of Group T – established in 2008 – third year engineering students follow lessons to prepare them for contacts with Chinese employers and colleagues. The programme is called Beyond Engineering.
“We want to broaden the horizons of our students, all the way to the Far East,” explains Wim Polet, director of the Confucius Institute in Leuven. The students learn the basics of the language and culture, but also do certain activities together with fellow Chinese students, who constitute 20% of the engineering student population at Group T.
In “cross-cultural cooking training”, for example, Chinese students help their Flemish colleagues to prepare a typical Chinese dish and vice versa. “It’s a simple kind of collaboration, but it helps them to get to know each other better,” says Polet. Every April, Group T, together with the Flanders-China Chamber of Commerce, organises a Flanders-China job fair, which gives Flemish companies a platform to recruit both Chinese students and Flemish students interested in a career in China.
The Confucius Institute in Leuven also offers an eight-day programme in the summer. Students learn basic communication skills, customs, symbols and what to expect during certain social situations such as dinners.
In preparation of the probable introduction of an optional Chinese course in Flemish secondary education in 2013, Group T is organising China Classes in six Flemish schools. China Classes are extracurricular activities of one or two hours a week that introduce secondary students to the Chinese world. In the future, Group T hopes to start up Confucius Classes, secondary schools that are integrated in a Confucius Institute.
For the KUL, Liu Yandong was the second high-level Chinese politician to visit in a few years. In 2009, vice-president of the People’s Republic Xi Jinping passed by the university. That is no coincidence: KUL has maintained close contacts with Chinese educational institutions for 35 years. The university has teamed up with Chinese partners for more than 70 research projects and has close bonds with, among others, the top institutions Tsinghua University in Beijing, Peking University, Zhejiang University in Hangzhou and Fudan University in Shanghai.
This academic year, approximately 600 Chinese students and researchers are active at the university, the largest Chinese population at any Flemish university. The Chinese are the second largest foreign group at the KUL – only the Dutch are more numerous.
To further intensify the Chinese collaboration, the university has signed five new agreements with universities in China as part of the new international platform called Leuven EDGE. A base for common research projects between the KUL and foreign universities, EDGE should help in bringing the best foreign students to Leuven. The scheme will also provide summer programmes of two weeks to students from all over the world.
“Instead of installing an expensive campus abroad, we hope to make Leuven into an international knowledge hub,” says Bart De Moor, vice-rector of international policy at KUL. “Our assets are not only the quality of our education but also our connection to the European institutions in Brussels. Many of our alumni, like the president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, are now important decision-makers.”
And international universities – such as China’s – are “fascinated by how efficiently we transfer knowledge and technology to enterprises,” notes De Moor. “Not only for economic purposes – our knowledge in human sciences helps to improve development aid.”
KUL wants not only to attract more Chinese researchers and students to Flanders, it will also be sending out more of its own students. The Chinese government’s scholarships for KUL students of sinology (the study of China) provide one year of study at a Chinese university. The scholarships cover registration fees – which can amount to €4,000 – and a monthly allowance to cover most of their living costs.
“For a sinology student, an opportunity to stay in China is just as important as the availability of laboratory environment to a chemistry student,” says Nicolas Standaert, head of the Sinology Department at KUL, which counts about 150 students. “That’s why nearly 90% of our students have already spent a study year in China. They need to experience the pleasant aspects of the culture but also, for example, the tiresome bureaucracy. When they come back, they are not only more proficient in Chinese but also more mature.”
Other Flemish institutions such as Group T and Howest also send their students to China, although the number of scholarships is more limited. But, as part of its Beyond Engineering programme, Group T organises a two-week trip to China, during which third-year students are guided around by the Chinese students in the group.
At Howest, the exchange programme “China from Within” provides approximately 40 Bachelor students with three weeks of language and culture lessons at the Zhejang Gongshang University and a course called “Doing Business in China”.
“All these initiatives are needed to bring our young generation closer to this often unknown culture in the Far East,” says professor Standaert, “especially as the 21st century could very well be the Chinese century.”