UCD risks being a pawn in China’s bigger game

There are worrying signs of the potential erosion of academic freedom in Ireland

The main higher education story over the past two years has rightfully been the Covid-19 pandemic. Everyone from students to senior management has coped as best as possible in extraordinary circumstances.

But the impact of another global development in the sector that has been slowly unfolding for years has now also became acute, and that is the growing threat to academic freedom. Authoritarian governments are asserting their values more forcefully in their partnerships with foreign universities. We have seen examples of this in recent months in Russia and Singapore, for instance. By virtue of its economic size and growing political clout, China is disproportionately important in these discussions. Ireland is not immune to erosions to academic freedom and shouldn’t pretend to be. The worry is that educational collaborations involving partners with ties to authoritarian states can lead universities in Ireland to allow, rationalise, or even defend illiberal versions of academic freedom at home.

Academic freedom matters. It guarantees the right of faculty members to carry out their teaching and research without fear of sanction or undue influence. It is a core tenet of the academy.

Unfortunately, there are some worrying signs of the potential for its erosion here in Ireland. Consider the stories about our own university that have been reported in this paper in the past few years. In April 2020, this newspaper reported that UCD circulated proposed changes that would weaken the university’s commitment to academic freedom. The draft document explicitly identified academic freedom as an obstacle to “the strategic imperative to internationalise higher education” and advanced formulations that diluted the former in pursuit of the latter.



Thankfully those changes were quickly walked back after outrage by a broad cross-section of UCD staff. But it is still disturbing that this line of thinking was taken seriously enough to propose as a policy change. Whether by coincidence or not those proposed changes were circulated the same month that UCD announced that it and its partners had received official approval from the Chinese ministry of education “for two new international colleges in China” at which UCD staff now teach.

In February 2021, this paper reported that the head of Huawei Ireland wrote privately to Minister for Defence Simon Coveney regarding an academic article by our colleague Dr Richard Maher about the Chinese telecoms giant. The letter said that academic freedom was a “two-way street” and requested the Minister’s “full support in mitigating the damage that has been done”. He secured a meeting with the secretary general of the department to discuss the matter. When the school of politics and international relations (SPIRe) privately signalled its concern to the university leadership, the university president described our concerns as an overreaction.

The problem is that the ruling party of China is a profoundly illiberal entity when it comes to the education sector

In July 2021, this paper reported on a story that involves the Irish Institute for Chinese Studies (IICS), a spin-off of the UCD Confucius Institute, is teaching a class in Chinese politics for UCD students. SPIRe objected. Confucius institutes are Chinese state-affiliated entities. As one of us told this paper, the IICS and the UCD Confucius Institute were established at the same time, have the same director, the same email address, the same phone number, the same building, overlapping senior staff, and share the same mission to promote Chinese studies.

As head of SPIRe during this time, David Farrell – the co-author of this opinion piece – argued internally that it was inappropriate for an entity linked with an illiberal state to teach UCD students about its own political system as part of their degree programme. Our school lobbied for the class to be ended and offered to teach our own academically independent class in Chinese politics. University management ultimately disagreed and the outcome is that the IICS/CI class continues. UCD is an outlier in this regard. The precise set-up of CIs varies by university, but to our knowledge other CI-linked entities do not teach politics for official credit at the host university.

Profoundly illiberal

But, you might be asking yourself, what is the fuss? The problem is that the ruling party of China is a profoundly illiberal entity when it comes to the education sector. This has always been the case to varying degrees, but under current leader Xi Jinping the party has turbo-charged its control over intellectual inquiry. As part of its “comprehensive reassertion of control”, in the words of expert Carl Minzner of Fordham University, the party-state has focused on the social sciences to strengthen political training for faculty and standardise reading materials. Student informants and placing CCTV in classrooms to monitor teaching have increased. “Xi Jinping Thought” research institutes have proliferated. Students have been arrested on campus for activism. Scholars such as Ilham Tohti remain jailed for criticising party policies.

Beijing has sanctioned European researchers studying China's repression of the Uyghur minority

Nor is this just a higher education trend. For example, this summer the Chinese ministry of education announced that Xi Jinping Thought will be introduced into the national curriculum. Yes, this is the same ministry that Ireland’s own Department of Education agreed in 2019 was a suitable partner to influence Ireland’s own Chinese language curriculum (something we only learned about in 2021 due to persistent reporting by RTÉ’s Yvonne Murray).

The party has also shown a willingness to advance its vision of the academy beyond China’s borders. The government has pressured international academic publishers to censor materials. Online archives are retroactively censored. Universities that invite the Dalai Lama have been punished. A 2019 UK Parliamentary report catalogued examples of direct interference on China-related issues in universities by state-affiliated groups, including surveillance of Chinese students overseas. Beijing has sanctioned European researchers studying China’s repression of the Uyghur minority. A CI director based in Belgium has been excluded from that country for espionage. To top it all off, the 2020 Hong Kong “national security law” effectively criminalises dissent globally, including on campus.

Deeply international

International collaboration is a worthy enterprise. Both authors participate in transnational higher education activities on a regular basis. Our own school is deeply international, with staff and students from all over the world, and we don’t want that to change. However, Ireland’s education sector needs to take more seriously the downside risks of entangling partnerships with entities overseen by authoritarian states. There are real concerns about illiberal incursions on Ireland’s academic freedom. Higher education leaders need to think more carefully and enact plans to protect academic integrity in Ireland.

The views expressed above are solely the authors' own