Chinese parents prize education probably above all other gifts they can hand on to their children, and are keen for their kids to study abroad at the best universities.
Australia and the US have been wooing Chinese students, with strong degrees of national identity helping sell the product.
Ireland has a way to go. Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn was in Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai last week with an Enterprise Ireland trade delegation of more than 15 educational institutions, including University College Cork,
There are some 5,000 Chinese studying in Ireland of which 300 are pursuing PhDs, and they fluctuate between being the largest and the second largest nationality grouping, but the aim is to expand this number. "I see China as a 10 or 15-year strategy," said the Minister. "There are structural things that have to be done in the garden, and there is regular maintenance and seasons within that period.
“It’s not a smash and grab situation. And if people see it as a smash and grab situation, the people who will be smashed will be us. The country is vast, so I’m anxious to ensure there is coherence in the message. This is a very coherent country. Education is an international traded service. That will drive some purists absolutely bananas, but that’s the way people see it and the way parents regard it, particularly parents here who want their children to go abroad for education.”
He spoke of one secondary school they visited where he was told all the students go to university and 20 per cent study abroad. "We're not dealing with the secondary school market at all but we are dealing with people with that level of expectancy," said Mr Quinn.
A big issue in China is innovation, and when Mr Quinn met his counterpart Yuan Guiren, this was an area they discussed. Indeed, Mr Quinn extended an invitation to Mr Yang to visit Ireland to see the Young Scientist competition, an invitation that was well received.
The visit saw the official launch of the Beijing-Dublin International College, a joint campus of UCD and Beijing University of Technology, which will focus on science, engineering and technology, business, management, creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship – all sought after concepts in China right now.
Under the partnership agreement between UCD and BJUT, the new international college will offer dual degrees across a range of subject areas, beginning with software engineering, the internet of things engineering, statistics and finance. The longer-term plan is to develop a full international university, which will award its own degrees.
"We are very conscious of the opportunities for students from both countries and indeed expect to attract students from other countries who are interested in learning in this international model. We bring considerable experience in quality teaching alongside research and innovation expertise," said UCD president Hugh Brady. "In return, we will gain deeper understanding of the region which will inform our own curriculum, especially in emerging and developing economies, and business systems in Asia."
UCD also signed a memorandum of understanding with China Agriculture University to set up an agricultural college jointly operated by both institutions, called UCD Yantai.
“Basically they want a high-class university and they have the infrastructure, and the two institutions will jointly operate the institution. In 10 years time, that place will be out of this world,” said Mr Quinn.
Trinity College Dublin (TCD) signed a student exchange agreement with Peking University (PKU), which ranks as China’s top university. Research collaborations and strong academic relationships already exist between Trinity and Peking University across a number of fields, including nanoscience, engineering and philosophy, and TCD academics this week met their counterparts in PKU in these and other disciplines to discuss the potential for greater engagement. The new agreement provides for two-way exchange of two full-time students per year across disciplines.
Mr Quinn also oversaw the launch of the Science Foundation Ireland-supported International Strategic Collaboration Award programme, under which some €1 million is being made available this year for collaborative research and development work.
It involves UCD and NUI Maynooth, along with other partner Irish institutions, and multiple Chinese partner institutions and companies.