Controversial Confucius Centre Due to Open Amidst Sudden Changes in Funding Use
The controversial UCD Confucius Centre is finally scheduled to be completed this September having run at least €4.8 million over budget. The project originally started in 2014 is now two years behind schedule as has been a frequent source of controversy over its links to the Chinese government, budgeting and concerns amongst academics about the effect such a centre could have on campus.
The Confucius Institute is the name given to hundreds of such Institutes established in Universities worldwide. They are tasked with promoting Chinese culture and fostering business and academic relationships between their host countries and China. They are established and funded to varying degrees by Hanban, a ‘non-government not for profit organisation’ that none the less is commonly viewed as another section of the Chinese Education Ministry.
The Confucius Institute due to be completed on UCD’s Belfield campus is exceptional in that it is the first to have received direct funding from the Chinese Government for its construction. This has brought significant attention to an already controversial project as many question how independent the institute truly is.
Under a Memorandum of Understanding that established the Institute in 2006 it was stated that ‘UCD will be the legal owner and operator of the Institute’ seemingly establishing its independence from Hanban. However, Hanban was obligated to ‘provide programme and operation funding to the Institute, and the involvement of the Chinese Government in directly funding the construction of the Confucius Centre which is due to house the Institute upon its completion has raised doubts over its independence.
The fact that the Institute appear to operate as a conduit for communications between UCD and Hanban further raises questions about its independence from Hanban. A freedom of information request obtained by the Tribune revealed that there was a substantial amount of communication between the Institute and Hanban, with correspondences between the tsswo said to be in excess of hundreds of emails. Given that UCD negotiated with Hanban directly when establishing the centre, and the fact that UCD is the legal owner of the Institute, this volume of communication is exceptional. Furthermore, in a set of correspondence seen by the Tribune, it was revealed that President Deeks’ office conducts the majority of its correspondence with Hanban via the Confucius Institute as opposed to directly.
The role the institute has played in the financial affairs of UCD has also been a matter of concern throughout its presence on campus. The construction of the Confucius Centre at the UCD Belfield campus was initially budgeted at €7 million in 2013, with the Chinese Government through Hanban paying €3 million. This cost would rise significantly to €10.2 million in March 2016 and further to €12.2 million in October 2017. In April 2016 President Deeks would write to the Department of Education seeking additional funding from the Irish Government on top of the €3 million they had already pledged. In this letter President Deeks said that UCD was committed to finishing the project in 2016 in order to avoid a ‘diplomatic incident’. He also commented on the projects ‘strategic importance to the Irish government’s relationship with China.’
This request was in effect refused by the Department meaning that UCD would fund the budget increases from existing funds. The total costs of the overrun were not available at the time of writing, however according to UCD it will be within ‘current approval levels.’
Day to day funding
While UCD is the owner and has ultimate control over the Confucius Institute, many of the day to day costs are borne by Hanban. This has presented complications for the UCD Institute as the Chinese fiscal year runs according to the calendar year, while UCD follows the academic year for their finances. Following a request from Director of the UCD Confucius Institute Professor Liming Wang, President Deeks signed a letter directed to Hanban asking them to adjust their funding system to better suit UCD. The speed of the initial exchange is unusual with the request for a letter to be signed and Deeks personally responding all taking place within less than 20 minutes.
The day to day running costs of the Institute are in theory taken on by Hanban via their grant system. Though this is complicated by the fact that UCD directly employs many of the staff seconded to UCD through the Institute and others are direct employees of Hanban itself.
Furthermore, in the same years, they have now budgeted for nearly €250,000 worth of ‘Supplies and Travel’, up on average 51% from the original budgets. These costs are not broken down any further and had not been adjusted at all in the previous two years. These costs are all entirely borne by Hanban as per the original memorandum establishing the Confucius Institute.
It does appear that the Institute is in the process of radically redirecting its Hanban funded resources. The Institute operates a five year budget, attempting with resources broadly accounted for well in advance of funds actually being appropriated. In the 2016/17 and 2017/18 financial years, these budgets remained unchanged save for the addition of new years budgets. However, in the 2018/19 financial year a sudden redistribution of resources and substantial increase in funding occurred, seemingly without cause. In 2018 the budget for staffing for the next four year was cut by on average 8% from the previous year’s budget.
Conversely, the overall budget allocation for the Institute as funded by Hanban was increased by an average of 22% for each of the years affected. The vast majority of this additional funding and savings were directed in a category of expenditure listed only as ‘Supplies and Travel- Hanban’ without further explanation. The funding supplied by Hanban for the Institute is intended to facilitate its day to day operational costs, therefore it would be expected as the Institute finally moves into the Confucius Centre that it would expand its services and therefore its costs.
Of further interest is the fact that as part of the funding increase Hanban has sought an overdraft with the explicit purpose ‘to cover teaching post add on costs’. This cause in this change in funding streams and amounts is currently unknown, but it means that for the average money granted to the institute will increase from €336,210 per annum to €408,007 per annum, a jump of 21%. This all amounts a story of continued Chinese interest in the UCD Confucius Institute.
The College Tribune has watched with great interest the development of the Confucius Institute since its initial establishment on campus. This interest has continued despite numerous changes in Editors. We are committed to investigating and holding UCD to account wherever possible.
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Aaron Bowman – CoEditor