Irish universities and the Chinese connection – is it worth the money?

Chinese students are vital to the sector. But some worry Ireland’s third level is in too tight

Can China save Ireland's universities? The number of Chinese students here is on the rise – and their fees may be worth €500 million to our cash-strapped third-level sector.

Last month, Ireland was given "country of honour" status at China Education Expo 2016, a prestigious education exhibition in Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai.

Minister for Education Richard Bruton, staff from Enterprise Ireland, and senior representatives from 19 higher education institutes, including a number of university presidents, visited China in hopes of increasing the number of Chinese students in Ireland.

This is part of a wider Government strategy to grow the economic value of international education to €2.1 billion – and increase of 33 per cent – by 2020.


Of course, Chinese students bring more than just money; they also give young Irish people the opportunity to engage with one of the most diverse, interesting and powerful cultures on the planet.

Ultimately, however, it’s about the cash: the higher education sector have pivoted to the Chinese because it needs their money.

Different colleges take different approaches to China. One is through the Confucius Institutes, which are funded by the Chinese authorities to promote language and culture. There are now more than 500 of them on host campuses worldwide, including University College Cork and University College Dublin.

At both universities’ Confucius Institutes, volunteer teachers visit primary and secondary schools to deliver Chinese-language classes. They are involved in the organisation of Chinese new year and other festivals, as well as martial arts classes.

UCD students who go to China as part of their studies attend language and culture classes through the institute, organise cultural and education events on campus, and promote research into and teaching of Chinese studies.

Confucius criticisms

Confucius Institutes are controversial, with claims that they lack transparency, suppress academic freedom and act as a propaganda arm of the Chinese state.

Several US colleges are beginning to move away from partnering with the institutes; Sweden severed its links in 2014.

Last week the UCD College Tribune and The Irish Times reported that UCD's Confucius Institute had run into trouble due to rising construction costs and a funding shortfall.

In negotiations between UCD and China, China’s financial contribution was capped at €3 million and the university agreed to assume responsibility for managing the development’s costs. UCD was dependent on securing at least €1 million in philanthropic donations to build the institute, but had only raised €110,000 by last April.

The Department of Education declined UCD’s request for an extra €2.5 million to finish the building. However, university president Andrew Deeks has said the university has no option but to proceed in order to “avoid a diplomatic incident”, according to the correspondence.

In response to queries, UCD said it remains committed to the project and that additional costs will be met through increased philanthropic targets. The project will have no impact on other capital projects on campus, it said.

Though the construction of the building has been slower than anticipated, the Confucius Institute continues its programme of activities, including language classes for almost 5,000 school children and members of the public.

Multiple engagements

The institute is not the only way UCD engages with China: the university recruits Chinese students through its international office and a global centre in Beijing; it has three partnerships with Chinese universities; and, through the Beijing-Dublin International College (a joint collaboration with the Beijing University of Technology), it runs a number of engineering, science, business and law modules, all in English.

But are universities forced to walk a diplomatic tightrope in attracting and welcoming Chinese students, without compromising the freedom of their academics to raise concerns or questions about Chinese politics or policies?

Jackie Sheehan, a professor of Asian studies at UCC's Confucius Institute, is known for her outspokenness on human rights and media self-censorship in China. So she is an interesting appointment to the role. She also, clearly, has an abiding respect for and fascination with the country.

“I’m fascinated by how fast China has changed, how that affects people and what gets swept away in the process,” she says. “Nobody has ever directly suggested to me that I should be careful of what I say. It comes second- or third-hand, such as when an academic might give a paper and the embassy complains.

“But I’ve never been denied a visa. I think people self-censor about China more than they need to, and I’m surprised at academics saying that I am outspoken; I’m surprised they are not more so.”

Under pressure

Alexander Dukalskis, a lecturer in the UCD school of politics and international relations specialising in Asian politics, takes a different view.

"Academics worry that if they teach, research or invite external speakers about issues the Chinese Communist party regards as 'sensitive', such as Taiwan, Tibet, criticisms of party rule, the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, or the personal wealth of top leaders, then they could be subject to pressure," he says.

Trinity College also engages closely with China through its Centre for Asian Studies. The college has a representative in China, and staff regularly travel between the two countries to recruit students.

Like all Irish universities, they attend fairs, deal with education agents and actively engage in social media. Trinity expects to have about 250 Chinese undergraduate, postgraduate and PhD students this year.

Brexit could make Ireland an even more attractive destination, with the UK implementing a tighter immigration policy at the same time the Irish Government announces its intention to extend the right of international students to stay and work here after they complete their studies.

Low Irish profile

Still, Ireland’s international appeal is far from certain, says Sinéad Ryan, director of internationalisation at Trinity College. “Ireland has a relatively low a profile in China,” she says, “so the country-of-honour status represents a great opportunity to raise Ireland in the Chinese consciousness.”

There is a "but", however: "The the UK has many world-class universities and the lower pound will make it more affordable for overseas students," Ryan says. "And Chinese students have also historically been very attracted to Australia and the US, who are likely to remain strong competitors. We can't afford to rest on our laurels."

17%: average growth in the number of Chinese students in Ireland over the past two years

3,300: Chinese students in Irish higher education institutes

2,400: Chinese students in Irish programmes in Chinese institutions

€2.1bn: estimated value of international higher education and English language students to Ireland by 2020

Dale Chen was 11 when his family moved from China to Ireland. He didn't have a word of English. Now 21, Chen is a third-year engineering student at Trinity College and president of the Chinese Society.

“I’ve been here long enough that I feel Irish,” he says. “There are some Irish-Chinese students like me in Trinity’s Chinese Society. Others are international students from China, often postgraduates, who come here to study for a year or two.

“I do find myself acting a mediator between Ireland and the international students. I can explain a lot about Ireland while still being able to relate to them.”

In China, Chen says, university students are more used to treating their lecturers with respect and even reverence, and there is less emphasis on questioning what they are told. In Ireland, students are actively encouraged to disagree with their lecturers and it is not unheard of for lecturers to have called security on disruptive students.

Chen says Irish universities can be a big shock for those who grew up in the Chinese school and university system.

“The casual teaching environment is more of a surprise to them, although I think they enjoy it more. There’s also a lot more extracurricular options for students here, with a huge choice of societies and activities.”

Ang Li is (22) is a chemistry student in Trinity. Several years she sat down with her parents in Beijing and, together, they decided she should go abroad for university.

"We thought I should attend a top-ranking university in an English-speaking country," Li says. "Ireland is a lovely country and I've made lots of friends here." Trinity also has an active Trinity Chinese Alumni Association.

Mixing in

Chinese students have made it clear to Irish universities that they expect to be integrated. “They don’t come to western universities to be in a room full of Chinese students,” says Jackie Sheehan of UCC.

“They are perhaps more used to hearing facts rather than discussion and can pull things in a ‘Confucian’ direction,” she says, “with exaggerated respect for the teacher and not a lot of debate.

“We do find that Chinese students may have spent less time on teamwork and in small groups, where ideas can be challenged and changed. One student from China was shocked to see how casually my other students spoke to me and that they called me by my first name. She thought they were rude.”

They also want to make their own cultural mark on Irish campuses.

“We have lively celebrations of Chinese New Year in Trinity’s front square every year,” says Sinéad Ryan of TCD. “We’re also seeing a growing interest in the broad curriculum Mandarin programme we offer our undergraduates.

Two-way integration is very much on the agenda for home and international students.”