Irish HEIs and China: Unfinished Business (Part 1/2)

The most recent headline on national newspapers in Ireland which involves China seems to be controversial for many. To be specific, it is a report by Irish Times in which it was revealed that “University College Dublin (UCD) has agreed with the Chinese government to jointly operate a controversial new Confucius Institute on the Belfield campus until at least 2066, contracts between the two parties reveal.”

Although I do not intend to focus on this particular case – given my limited knowledge about any Confucius Institute in general – it is interesting to have a look, from a historical perspective, how Irish higher education institutions have developed their relationships with China.

Diplomatic relations were established between China and Ireland on June 22, 1979, less than a year later than the Chinese economic reform was started in December 1978 by Deng Xiaoping.

The number of Chinese students venturing overseas started increasing in the 1990s and has been further exploding since the year 2000. During the past two decades, there was a shift of the population makeup from more adults with families to more young students.

According to the UNESCO Institute of Statistics, there were 694,400 Chinese students studying abroad in 2012, accounting for nearly 20 per cent of total mobile students in the world. With a total of 189,500 students pursuing education abroad, India was ranked second and followed by Republic of Korea (123,700) and Germany (117,600). Top five destination countries for Chinese students were the US, Japan, Australia, the UK and Republic of Korea (Figure 1). In 2012, a total of 210,452 Chinese students enrolled at American HEIs, accounting for above 30 per cent of all Chinese students who studied abroad in the same year. The top five destination countries combined attracted around 75 per cent of Chinese students.

Figure 1: China as a country of origin

China as a origin country

Source: UNESCO.

In comparison, Ireland hosted 1,471 Chinese students in 2012 and was ranked 23rd in the list of country, after a couple of other small European countries such as Sweden and Finland. In 2012, the total number of mobile students hosted by Irish HEIs was 11,100, of which 2,062 were from the UK, 1,471 from China and 1,044 from the US (Figure 2). Although China was among the top three countries of origin of mobile students for Ireland, the total number of Chinese students in Ireland only accounted for 2.1 per cent of all Chinese students studying abroad.

Figure 2: Ireland as a destination country

Ireland as a destination

Source: UNESCO.

From a global perspective, there have been increasing choice and competition for international students (Figure 3). Data from the OECD shows that a number of new players have emerged on the international education market while the market share of some of the most popular countries has decreased during the period of 2000-2012. Countries such as Canada, Russia and Spain have experienced significant increase of the number of foreign students. In contrast, the share of international students in the US dropped from 23 per cent to less than 17 per cent between 2000 and 2011.

Figure 3: Trends in international education market shares (2000, 2012)

Trends in international education market shares 2000 and 2012

Source: OECD.

Ireland, although not considered a major destination country by international standards, it has experienced significant growth levels of international students over the last decade or so. Education in Ireland has been publishing data on international students since 2004, with the most recent data being released for the year of 2011-12.

It should be mentioned that Education in Ireland and UNESCO/OECD seem to have different systems of data collection, which leads to obvious mis-matches between the two data sources.

Excluding those offshore students, the data from Education in Ireland shows that in 2003-04 there were 18,608 international students enrolled at Irish HEIs, and the number increased to 30,531 in 2011-12 (Figure 4).

Figure 4: International students in Ireland, 2003-04 to 2011-12

International students in Ireland

Source: Education in Ireland.

Table 1 below further shows the number of Chinese students studying in Irish HEIs – again, this number excludes offshore students – during the same period. While the number increased from 2,874 in 2003-04 to 3,573 in 2007-08, it has dropped sharply ever since. In 2011-12, the number of Chinese students in Ireland was smaller than that in 2003-04. Table 1 also clearly indicates that the share of Chinese students in the total international students has been declining since the data collection began in 2003-04. In 2011-12, Chinese students just accounted for 9 per cent of all international students in Ireland, decreasing from over 15 per cent in 2003-04.

Table 1: Number of Chinese students in Ireland, 2003-04 to 2011-12

Number of Chinese students As % of total international students
2003-2004 2,874 15.4
2005-2006 3,465 13.7
2007-2008 3,573 13.1
2009-2010 3,355 13.0
2011-2012 2,751 9.0

Source: Education in Ireland.

As already mentioned, all of the data presented above does not include those students who are offshore. In its report – International Students in Irish Higher Education 2011-2012 – Education in Ireland claimed that “23% of Ireland’s international students are offshore [in 2011-12] and this had led to a shift in the profiles of some countries of origin”. The example given in the report, interestingly, was exactly China. The report continued to say that “46% of Chinese students are now studying offshore and the numbers based in Ireland have dropped by 10% (300) in one year”.

Indeed, when including both onshore and offshore students, China overtook the US as the country where most international students in Ireland were from. More specifically, while 2,751 Chinese students were studying in Ireland, another 2,349 were enrolled at distance education programmes. The US showed a contrast pattern to China, with only 31 American students were offshore, in comparison to a total of 4,415 onshore students.

In terms of tuition income, offshore students seem to have a rather limited impact. Whilst Education in Ireland reported that tuition income was about €230 million in 2011-12, just under €8 million was contributed by offshore students. It was highlighted that the tuition figure recorded from offshore students was “only the royalty … repatriated back to Ireland”. The full impact of distance and offshore students needs to be further examined.

[To be continued]

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