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The Library of Trinity College Dublin. Photo by Travis Wise available at under Creative Commons license

02:57 pm | 13. September 2019

Shared Futures in Education

For many universities in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe, engagement with Chinese institutions can represent an immense opportunity. But what are the hidden costs to the core values of higher education in Europe?

By Echowall Staff

Addressing a gathering of senior administrators, faculty and students at the University College Dublin in April 2017, China’s ambassador to Ireland, Yue Xiaoyong, stressed that in its foreign policy China has “called upon countries all over the world to join hands to build a community of shared future.” He talked about universities as “temples of wisdom” and “oceans of knowledge.”

Mr. Yue praised the University College Dublin for its leading role in establishing links with Chinese educational institutions. “[The university] is a leader in Ireland in terms of its links and partnerships with first-class universities and institutes in China,” he said.

Universities in Ireland have certainly turned more enthusiastically to cooperation with Chinese counterparts in recent years, partly in a bid for student enrollment numbers and MOUs with an eye to much-needed resources in the cash-strapped Irish higher education system.

But closer connections with China have also raised more serious questions about shared educational values. Six months after Ambassador Yue’s address, the president of University College Dublin, Andrew Deeks, faced criticism after he praised the “wisdom of the Chinese approach” to funding higher education in an e-mail to university staff. Deeks was referring to how the Chinese government was allocating new funding to 45 top universities, giving them a high degree of discretion as to how to apply the funds. But his praise for the "Chinese approach" concerned some. 

Commenting on Twitter in the midst of the discussion, Alex Dukalskis, an assistant professor in UCD's School of Politics and International Relations, pointed to a number of well-documented trends in China under President Xi Jinping, including calls for tighter ideological control within universities; a deep and sustained attack on the values that underpin Western scholarship and education; a very real sense among liberal intellectuals that they have no future in China; and the restriction and intimidation of scholars working on China.

The concerns voiced by Dukalskis reflect a growing awareness of the possible risks to the values underpinning higher education in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe as ties with Chinese institutions deepen. In February this year, the Leiden Asia Center released a study of Europe-China collaboration in higher education, writing that "more realistic and better-informed assessments of the opportunities and risks of collaboration with an emboldened illiberal China are necessary."

Certainly, if it is true that Chinese and European universities are developing, as Ambassador Yue Xiaoyong suggested, toward “a community of shared future” in higher education, there should be a more open debate about shared values—particularly in light of China's well-documented censorship and government control of higher education. For a deeper discussion of these issues, Echowall reached out to Professor Dukalskis for his insights on educational engagement with China. 



Alex Dukalskis, assistant professor in the School of Politics and International Relations, University College Dublin. 

Echowall: Could you, first of all, give our readers a general sense of what the gravitational force of China has looked like for higher education in Ireland in recent years? What is the attraction for Irish universities? Is it about getting tuition-paying students into classrooms? About research and development?

Dukalskis: Funding for higher education is a perpetual issue in Ireland as it is elsewhere. The attraction for Irish universities for engaging with China is to attract non-EU fee-paying students. Again, this is a relatively common practice. In the Irish case when the UCD Confucius Institute was expanded there is also an element of the government wishing to build tighter links with China. This is presumably to maintain and expand economic relationships. The Irish government and UCD put up significant amounts of money to construct a large purpose-built building on UCD’s campus and gave the Confucius Institute a 50-year exclusive lease on that building. The costs of that construction overran and now UCD is liable for several million more Euro to facilitate the Confucius Institute’s presence in that building.

Echowall: What are the ways, positive or negative, you see growing engagement with China impacting higher education in Ireland?

Dukalskis: On the positive side of the ledger, I find that Chinese students are often really fun to work with. The debates and conversations that result from having Chinese students on campus are really valuable. The Chinese students we get are often engaged, curious, and smart.

However, engagement with “China” at high enough levels necessarily means engaging with the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party. For some purposes this may not be very controversial, but in some areas of social sciences, humanities, and legal studies, it presents serious problems. The threat of censorship and intimidation is very real when it comes to academic research on and with China. Universities in liberal democratic societies need to take strong and public stances in defense of academic freedom when dealing with China.

In my view universities in liberal democratic societies should not cede any ground in terms of academic freedom to accommodate the Chinese government.


Echowall: On the important question of educational values, you have written about China’s “authoritarian public sphere,” the way it manipulates opinion at home. How, in your view, can we reconcile the interest in diplomacy in education on the one hand with the need to uphold the core values that universities in Ireland and elsewhere uphold?

Dukalskis: In my view universities in liberal democratic societies should not cede any ground in terms of academic freedom to accommodate the Chinese government. Universities have virtually no control over what the Chinese government does within its own borders to cultivate its authoritarian public sphere. However, universities can and should vigilantly guard against the export of some of the CCP’s higher education practices.

In my view, many universities have made a mistake by ceding the study of China and Chinese language to the Confucius Institute, which is, after all, a Chinese government entity. This gives CCP representatives a seat at the table in discussions about curriculum, student recruitment, and even in some cases academic hires. Of course, the CCP is not an entity that respects free inquiry and academic freedom, so I view these developments as inappropriate.

Echowall: Another area where the values of academia and the values of the Chinese Communist Party have recently been a volatile mixture is academic publishing. We had the case of Cambridge University Press in 2017 consenting to the restriction of access to scholarly articles in China, and later backing down under public pressure. How do you view these developments?

Dukalskis: To me one of the most disappointing aspects is how quickly Cambridge University Press was willing to comply with censorship requests. Had the editor of China Quarterly [the journal published by CUP] not written a public letter about the issue, it is entirely possible that censorship would have continued without many people knowing about it. I was heartened to see how many academics were willing to pressure publishers by considering a boycott of publishing and reviewing for presses that censor their offerings for the Chinese market. Academics provide most of the labor (for free) that allows academic publishers to operate. By withdrawing that free labor academics actually do have some influence over publishers.

Imagine a thought experiment: Donald Trump directs the United States to halt imports of Cambridge University Press materials that are critical of him or the Republican party and he threatens to revoke CUP’s ability to sell anything in the United States unless it complies.


More generally academic publishers should not selectively censor their offerings for the Chinese market. This approach is insidious because it allows people to believe that a press’ offerings represent the full picture of foreign-language studies of Chinese politics and society when in actuality it only represents CCP-approved studies.

Imagine a thought experiment: Donald Trump directs the United States to halt imports of Cambridge University Press materials that are critical of him or the Republican party and he threatens to revoke CUP’s ability to sell anything in the United States unless it complies. Academics, citizens, and publishers would be rightly outraged and would strenuously object. Yet somehow when it comes to such requests and threats by the CCP some publishers and universities seem perfectly willing to justify their compliance with censorship.

Echowall: Given the tangible benefits of exchange for Irish universities, we will likely see deepening engagement with China at the management level. In October 2016, for example, Ireland’s Minister for Education and Skills headed a delegation of 19 Irish university presidents to the China Education Expo 2016, where Ireland was the Country of Honor. In your view, is there sufficient literacy about the potential pitfalls of dealing with Chinese partners among those on the front lines of this university diplomacy? 

Dukalskis: In my view, no, there is not enough attention to issues of academic freedom when it comes to dealing with China. Sometimes this is the product of the academic background of foreign leaders who may come from sectors where censorship is not so prevalent (such as engineering and chemistry) and so they may not be as inclined to readily see those issues.

I am not familiar with this 2016 delegation in particular, but if it is as you describe, I suspect it is unlikely that they spoke with scholars who have had their work censored, or worse, or consulted with academics here in Ireland who might have alerted them to such issues. This means that such delegations are likely only interacting with people who provide a sanitized picture of Chinese higher education. In other cases there may be willful ignorance or even adopting overly relativistic narratives to justify practices by Chinese authorities in this area in order to secure or maintain good relations with Chinese institutions.

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A report in the Sunday Times in February 2019 draws on the findings of the study by Alex Dukalskis and Samuel Brazys of Confucius Institutes. 

Echowall: You and Samuel Brazys published a paper recently that looked at Confucius Institutes (CIs) globally and attempted to show quantitatively whether and how the presence of CIs in an area might impact the nature of media coverage about China. You argued that Confucius Institutes were a major part of China’s efforts abroad at “grassroots image management,” or influencing the way ordinary people perceive China in countries like Ireland. Could you briefly describe your findings?

Dukalskis: We gathered data on all Confucius Institutes in the world, including their opening date and their precise geographical coordinates, to investigate whether the presence of a Confucius Institute influences the tenor of media coverage about China in that locality. We were able to analyze a dataset of over 300,000 newspaper and website articles that were computer coded to determine their tone, or how positive/negative they were. We find that Confucius Institutes do indeed positively impact coverage about China in localities hosting an institute. The difference is not overly dramatic at first glance, but it is detectable and significant. We also investigate some geo-located public opinion data about attitudes toward China in a subset of African states and find similar results. In other words, this is evidence that Confucius Institutes do indeed work to improve China’s image abroad.

13. September 2019
Echowall Staff