Confucius says it's time for Irish students to fly to China
Next week, staff from 25 universities and eight secondary schools in China will arrive in Ireland hoping to attract students.
No foreign country has become so embedded in our education system in recent years as China.
Hanban, the propaganda arm of the Chinese communist party, provides courses in Mandarin in Irish schools and universities through its two Confucius institutes at UCD and UCC.
It is involved in teacher training and offers scholarships for trips to China.
There are now "Confucius classrooms" in some of our best-known schools, including Blackrock College, Belvedere and Clongowes.
Many students will welcome the opportunity to study Mandarin, and possibly travel to China on a course, possibly on a scholarship.
Every year, hundreds of transition-year students travel to the country for Easter camps.
The Irish Government is keen to foster these links. However, some will questions whether schools, universities, and the Department of Education should be so closely involved with an undemocratic state that restricts freedom of speech.
The 25 universities and eight schools from Shanghai will hold a meeting in Cork City Hall next Tuesday and hope to enrol students. These could be undergraduates studying in Shanghai for a year, or PhD students doing research.
Up to 18 students from UCC travel to China every year on scholarships, and have their tuition, accommodation and other expenses paid for.
Students who are not on scholarships pay €3,000 per year as well as their flights.
Yongbin Xia, director of the Confucius Institute at UCC, says: "There is increased interest among Irish students in travelling to study, because of the growing links between Ireland and China.
"The most popular courses are in Chinese business and marketing."
The traffic is not all one-way, with thousands of Chinese students coming here to study. They now comprise up to 10pc of the non-EU student population at UCD.
Confucius institutes are often compared to organisations such as the British Council and the German Goethe institutes.
They are seen as a way of promoting the country's language and culture abroad.
Over 350 Confucius institutes have opened in universities around the world, and they are seen as part of China's "soft-power diplomacy".
Their influence may be growing in schools and colleges, but they have not escaped criticism.
Mike Jennings, general secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, says: "There is international unease at higher education and particularly research institutes being under the direct control of a state.
"We would have concerns about academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and the ability to criticise."
Last year, the American Association of University Professors called on universities to reconsider their partnerships with the centres.
The association said: "These centres are subject to considerable oversight from the Chinese government that, in some cases, places limitations on academic freedom and threatens their scholastic integrity."
"Their academic activities are under the supervision of Hanban, a Chinese state agency which is chaired by a member of the Politburo and the vice premier of the People's Republic of China."
Jongbin Xia, director of the Confucius Institute in UCC, said claims that the institutes limit full freedom to discuss all the political issues are unfair.
The Confucius Institute operates as part of UCC's School of Asian Studies.
Mr Jongbin says: "Our teachers from the Confucius Institute are only involved in teaching the Chinese language. The other political subjects at UCC are provided by the School of Asian Studies."
Regardless of political concerns, Mandarin is likely to grow in importance in Irish schools in the coming years. The Chinese language will be offered as a short course for the new Junior Cycle in a number of schools.
China's ambassador to Ireland, Jianguo Xu, has expressed "surprise" at the fact that Chinese is the only official language of the UN not examined at Leaving Certificate level.
'Shanghai made Ireland seem like a village'
Billy Lonergan, a sixth-year student at Colaiste an Phiarsaigh, has already studied Chinese for five months at Shanghai University.
He worked hard in fifth year to keep ahead in his Leaving Cert, and spent last September to January in the Chinese college on a scholarship. "I stayed in a campus dormitory for international students. It was a great challenge, but I embraced it. The place is so big that it makes the whole of Ireland look like a village. I hope to go to Shanghai on another scholarship some time.
"I had got a scholarship because I won a Chinese language competition. I took a night class at UCC, because I like Chinese. It was something different. Then, when the course was over, I learned the language myself on the internet."
White board jungle
Students need to know when they can use 'ridic' and when 'ridiculous' is needed in writing, argues the linguistics academic Dr Mark Garner in the latest issue of the 'Times Educational Supplement'.
Scrabble caused a stir this month by approving a raft of new terms, including 'ridic' in its latest wordlist. Much to the chagrin of fuddy-duddies everywere 'lolz', 'emoji' and 'twerking' will now be allowed in the boardgame.
These words may be allowed in Scrabble, but Dr Garner, of Roehampton University, says pupils in school still need to grasp which words are suitable in exams, essays and job applications. When is it inappropriate to be informal?
"Pupils cannot expect to get away with using 'tuneage' in a music essay to describe a song they like," he says.
"The argument can be summed up as 'to each its own place'. 'Laughter' is appropriate in formal writing, whereas 'lolz' might be acceptable - even preferable - on Twitter."
As someone said of 'Macbeth' in a Shakespeare essay for an exam, "that's pure mental."