Go East? Chinese Universities and Ireland

A TL:DR of Irish university internationalisation plans would be  : get Chinese students, link with Chinese universities.  Im not at all sure that this makes sense, economically or otherwise.

The economic case is a little like : there are loads of them, we can charge them loads, lets get loads. This is a simplicifation but not a massive one. The problem is threefold : how do we get them, what do we give them to sustain them coming, and what is the effect of them. The latter is the issue of appropriate levels of support which costs. Chinese students require,in my experience of 25 years in academia,  on average, more support than other international students. We can think of ongoing language concerns and especially concerns around ..how to put this …the norms of academic research and writing and the role of others work in same. In any case we cannot simply put in an arbitrary number (“lets up our Chinese students to 10% of the student body!” ) without both changing fundementally the existing university experience. This change may be for the good but change it will be and the nature of change is such that it often takes us into places we would not have gone. Finally, charging students a load of money is great, but we have to deliver. Part is on the support noted but a large part is on a campus learning environment, social environment, ongoing career etc support. There is a cost to doing it and a bigger cost to not doing. So, by all means lets bring in a large number of Chinese students but make the business case and make it clear.

More concerning to me is the other element. Universities thrive only when free speech thrives. In every area of engagement that is what drives it forward. Students must be allowed and empowered to critique everything. Faculty must create an environment where this thrives, where they are required to explain rather than dictate, and where they and the students can investigate freely. State incentives to promote research and learning in certain areas cannot override that, and in Ireland doesnt. You might not get a lot of cash from anyone to study something but unless its wildly unethical nobody will stop you.

This is not the case, it seems, in China. The most recent swing of the pendulum is towards greater orthodoxy and control.  This is especially clear in the latest statement on universities. It suggests that self censorship is the way forward. This is deeply disturbing stuff. It is fundamentally incompatible with what are commonly called liberal values, such as the right to freedom of thought. Free speech is not allowed, nor now is freedom of research. In the end this is how the ancient Chinese mandarinate emerged – politically orthodox and unable, literally, to think outside the self set bounds of their own ideological box. The mandarinate strangled china….

Irish universities and higher ed are getting into China in a big way. UCD, which already has a Confcucian Institute, has opened a Global Office in Bejing. Confucian Institutes have come under severe criticism for their hewing to the party line, literally, despite being located on university campuses. The campus will be funded buy the Chinese government. It is a racing certainty that discussion on Tibetan independence, the role of free speech in mediation of discussion and the benefits of multiparty democracy in policy will NOT be on the curriculum. Such are anathema to the Chinese government. One has to wonder what the UCD board were thinking beyond €€€€… WIT has a Shanghai office, TCD an exchange programme with Peking University etc etc. All across the board the rush to the east is in full flight. One has to wonder however – what will the effect be? The western university has existed as a model for 800 years, built on critical thinking, openness of thought and speech, and the free exchange of ideas. The chinese government approach is anathematic to this. Im not a cultural relativist – some things, I hold, are universal – the right to freedom of thought, of non defamatory speech are in my view absolutely central to humane existence. Confucian Institutes are a branch of soft propeganda.

the Director of the Canadian association of university teachers states

The difference [between the Confucius Institute and other cultural institutes] is that with the Confucius Institute there’s clearly strong delineated things that you cannot talk about in the classroom. I raise the three Ts- Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen Square, they’re the three brokered subjects. Those things are not permitted to be discussed and the problem is that universities are supposed to be places where we can have complete, robust, rigorous discussions that touch upon academic freedom, that touch upon world affairs, that touch upon controversial issues and if we have to put limits on that, I don’t think there’s any room for that kind of institution on a university campus.

Do we, as a polity, really want to forge closer links between the liberal university approach in Ireland and this approach?  As a UCD graduate I have to state that I think it inappropriate to host a  Confucian Institute given their being in effect a branch of an massively oppressive government. It would be the cultural equivalent of a Wahabi madrassa. As an educator, I think Ireland should be very very wary of ever deeper entanglement in Chinese universities. By all means be open to high quality chinese (or chilean or congolese…) students who wish to come to study and learn, to exchange ideas. But lets not get too deeply in…


2 thoughts on “Go East? Chinese Universities and Ireland

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Go East? Chinese Universities and Ireland

  2. maccaoltighemichael

    Dear Dr Lucey.

    This is not you best piece of work. Not that I disagree with all of it – it’s just a bit…..well……unfathomed.

    Firstly, your opening statement is generalised – does it refer to ALL Irish universities? I am unclear, reading it again.

    Secondly – the premise that “get Chinese students, link with Chinese universities” – is contextually incorrect – Chinese students do not make up most or close to the majority and why would it? Actually, the future for internationalisation (or whatever one calls it), is, in economic value, with our EU and USA markets where existing GATT/Cultural/Political/freedom of movement concessions apply. The future is to engage (again) with our traditional academic counterparties – not to create new ones, like China.

    Which, brings me to China and the Chinese. Having been there and engaged, ultimately the problem for them (and us) is that you are not ‘bet-down’. What I mean is, you Dr Lucy have a mind of your own. Unfortunately, you also have the means and dinner-parties to exercise this. (Between bouts of apathy and exhilaration in your research and teaching, of course).

    And that’s the problem and you are correct. Freedom of Speech is not, well, there. The vessel of the Confucian Institute as a softening-up of hard decisions (read: the three T’s) is well understood. Engage or not? That is the question.

    A word of warning, in finality: let’s not over-generalise and let you final thought pervade “lets not get too deeply in…”. Yes, we can educate from recruitment fin China without being compromised and, yes, we can avert cogging (Irish or Chinese) through teaching. But it is hardly the future.


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