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Joint College Plan with Chinese University abandoned by UCC

Maebh McCarthy, Deputy News Editor

University College Cork is not proceeding with a controversial project to form a “joint college” with a Chinese university that specialises in ethnic studies. There was no reason given as to why the project is being abandoned, however. As a result of a review commissioned by the university, a warning was issued stating that there could be “repercussions” if the Chinese bodies involved in the project believed that it was withdrawn due to ethical concerns. This review, commissioned in November 2020, came to pass when over 50 academics at UCC sought clarity on whether Minzu University was linked to human rights abuses against the Uighur people in Xinjiang. 

Interim President of UCC, Professor John O’Halloran, chaired a steering group which explored the ‘deepening of UCC’s already-existing links with Minzu University.’ According to The Irish Times, there has been “sustained international condemnation of the Beijing government’s policy in Xinjiang where up to a million Uighur and other people from minority groups have been put in camps as part of a campaign the Chinese Communist Party has said is designed to target “extremism””.

Alexander Dukalskis, an associate professor at University College Dublin’s school of politics, said UCC’s prospective joint college proposal with Minzu, a university that had a focus on ethnic studies, raised “huge ethical questions as China’s ethnic minority policy has become one of the most oppressive in the world in recent years” in October of last year.

The Irish Times examined documents under the Freedom of Information act, which revealed the correspondence between UCC and the National University of Ireland (NUI). In light of expressions of concern , Prof O’Halloran asked the chancellor of the NUI, Dr. Maurice Manning, to review the proposed move with Minzu before any course of action was taken. In January of this year, Dr. Manning responded to Prof O’Halloran confirming that it was clear to him the university was “operating very firmly within the NUI human rights guidelines” in relation to such projects. Documents that were released under Freedom of Information show the project was scheduled to go for approval to UCC’s academic council in January and to the university’s governing body in February. 

A spokesperson for the University told The Irish Times recently that “university management has decided not to proceed with a joint college plan with Minzu University.” There was no further comment. The joint college proposal between the two institutions would have seen Cork’s involvement expand to include degrees in fields such as science, engineering, food science and law.

In addition to the correspondence between the NUI and UCC, there was also an “ethics review” by a UK consultancy on the question of whether the project with Minzu University would be contrary to UCC’s “core values.” The review’s findings said that should it be decided to reject the project on ethical grounds then the feasibility of the continuation of UCC’s joint environmental science course, already shared with Minzu University, may be in jeopardy.  As quoted from the report, extracting UCC from the project would have to be handled “as tactfully as possible as there may well be repercussions on future opportunities for UCC in China if [Minzu] or the [Chinese ministry of education] considered that they had lost face.”

This issue became a political story in recent weeks, when Independent Senator, Rónán Mullen, warned the Government that the developing links between Irish and Chinese Universities must be scrutinised because of concerns about human rights violations. Mr Mullen asked in the Seanad: “Can we be sure that human rights and freedom, including academic freedom and freedom of thought, will be guaranteed to Irish staff and students going to China or Chinese staff and students coming here?” Senator Mullen warned that the State’s education system may be “contaminated” as a result of developing these links amid such violations. He called for Minister for Further and Higher Education, Simon Harris, to address the Seanad about the issue and the “growing cooperation between Irish and Chinese educational institutions.”