Wang Can, a final-year PhD student, and I are sitting in a cafe in UCD’s Conway Institute. Like hundreds of other Chinese students, the Beijing University of Chemical Technology graduate came to the university through its pre-masters programme. In China, he says, most private and public sector employers favour western-educated graduates. “We know how to deal with people from foreign countries,” he explains. “This is an advantage for Chinese companies that want to break into the western system.”
Hongbo Sun, a second-year undergraduate, accepted a place in UCD after completing a year-long foundation course in the Dublin International Study Centre. His English was poor when he first moved here in 2011, but the majority of his friends now are Irish and Spanish. He spends most of his time these days running a Dublin-based mobile startup designed to simplify inflight shopping. And Kuan Yang, a final-year PhD student, came to Trinity on a Chinese government scholarship. He hopes to find an academic position back in China at the end of his studies.
These three journeys resonate with a growing number of Chinese students opting to study in Ireland. Higher Education Authority (HEA) statistics show an increase in the number of Chinese students in full-time Irish higher education from 1,596 in the 2012-13 academic year to 1,706 last year – not including the number of Chinese students on short-term exchange programmes. Panpan Lin, a Trinity graduate working on Chinese social media for the university, tells me that more and more students are engaging with posts on its recently launched Weibo profile, which is now followed by over 3,000 users of the Chinese microblogging site.
For western-looking students, Irish higher education offers a welcome break from the gruelling Chinese education system. In China, Hongbo says, lectures can begin as early as 6am and students tend to study late into the night. Western universities tend to be more innovative in their teaching, typically combining traditional lectures with multimedia and online learning systems, Can explains. Another major advantage offered by Irish universities is their relatively low admission requirements. Students without the grades required by top US and UK universities can study here before applying to higher-ranked institutions that are less likely to recognise Chinese qualifications.
But the trend also serves an important purpose for Irish universities increasingly reliant on international student fees. The majority of Chinese students are from the country’s rapidly expanding middle class and can afford to pay full tuition, a blessing for third-level institutions facing massive shortfalls in funding. For Trinity, which hopes to at least double its Chinese student numbers by the 2018-19 academic year, recruitment strategies include partnerships with Chinese universities and selected education agents, visits to key schools, attendance at education fairs, and targeted social media activity, including a new Chinese-language website. Its new Centre for Asian Studies will offer an MPhil in Chinese Studies from September 2015. UCD has been even more aggressive in its targeting of Chinese students. Over 500 students are now enrolled at the Beijing-Dublin International College, an institution it established in 2012 in partnership with the Beijing University of Technology. It plans to open a new international campus in the Shandong province by 2016 and recently announced plans to open a new global centre in Beijing.
But drawing more Chinese students to Ireland also means working with Chinese authorities. UCD’s oft-promoted Confucius Institute – which, thanks to joint funding from the Irish and Chinese government, will be housed in its own dedicated campus building by 2016 – is part of a global network of Confucius Institutes that has been accused of operating as a propaganda arm of the Chinese state. In the last month, two American universities, the University of Chicago and Penn State University, closed their institutes over concerns about the infringement of academic freedoms. The closures followed a campaign by the American Association of University Professors that called for university agreements with Hanban, the Chinese government body that oversees the institutes, to be ended or renegotiated. But these concerns have not prevented the Irish government from pledging €3 million to its UCD division in Budget 2015.
Even the Irish branch of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), the only official organisation for overseas Chinese students, has links to the Chinese embassy. Can, its current president, is careful when asked about its embassy funding. The association is pushing for more financial independence, he tells me, to prevent potential difficulties over political issues. He mentions that the embassy had contacted the association about identifying students involved in last month’s Dublin demonstration in support of the Hong Kong protests. In his opinion, the “Hong Kong problem” is part of a wider political game. “Some foreign countries control the students [in Hong Kong],” he says. “Students are very easy to control. You give them a bit of money and lie to them. [They] trust everything.”
When the conversation turns to Trinity’s attempts to increase international student numbers, Can claims that there have been historical “difficulties” with the university that have hindered its recruitment efforts. He explains that the Chinese embassy was “not happy” when Dr. Lobsang Sangay, the elected leader of Tibet’s government in exile, was invited to speak on campus by the College Historical Society (Hist) in 2012. These kind of events can complicate Trinity’s relationship with China, he says. The remark is later deflected by a spokesperson for the Global Relations Office, who says society events are “nothing to do with Trinity as an institution” and that the university has “an open and supportive relationship with the Chinese embassy in Dublin.”
That the head of the CSSA appears to be aware of embassy grievances lends credence to the view that its highest-ranking members are closely aligned to Chinese authorities. Hongbo, who has stepped back from the association after founding its publicity department last year, says he regards it as a “[Chinese] government-supporting organisation”. It is useful, he tells curious students, “if you want to be a “government official or politician”.
But the CSSA’s pulling power – it has established 17 third-level chapters with over 6,000 registered members since its 2004 launch in Ireland – means it also fulfills an important social role in the lives of many Chinese students.One of its most frequent outings is to Kildare Village, which offers CSSA members a 10% discount in all outlets as well as a free return bus service. Designer brands are much more expensive in China, Can tells me. David Zhao, the president of the CSSA’s Trinity chapter, the so-called Chinese Society, also sees its role as being primarily social. “Our focus is on culture and celebrating events like the Chinese New Year,” he says. “It’s not as if we’re toeing the line. Protest just isn’t our focus.”
For those Chinese students feeling isolated in Ireland, the CSSA provides a welcome community. Kuan says he was “very lonely” here until he was introduced to the association. Cultural differences can make integration difficult, Panpan tells me. “Chinese culture is collectivist, while Ireland and the west are more individualist,” she says. “Here, at a lot of parties, you arrive, take a drink, start talking to someone, and then move on to the next person. But at an organised Chinese party, you will arrange a circle or table. People like to do social games together as a group, not in twos or threes. You don’t really move around. There are always usually one or two organisers who will tell people what to do.”
But most Chinese students only have a limited time in Ireland. The majority of postgraduates are funded by Chinese government scholarships that stipulate that sponsored students must return to work in China for at least two years at the end of their studies. Others are only able to stay on if they find work within a year of graduating. Wherever their destination, this growing western-educated cadre are likely to face more opportunities than China’s older generations ever have.
Illustration: Natalie Duda