MPs warn of China’s threat to UK academic freedom

A House of Commons inquiry into defending democracy “in the age of autocracies” has found mounting evidence of foreign influence in United Kingdom universities, including “alarming evidence” about the extent of Chinese influence on UK campuses.

It accuses the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) of failing to take the lead across government on this issue, failing to make detailed assessments of how UK universities should respond and failing to engage with counterparts in other counties such as Australia, New Zealand and the United States to share best practice.

“The FCO’s role in advising universities on the potential threats to academia from autocracies is non-existent. There is no evidence that it has considered the threat from autocracies to academic freedom, which underpins the quality of UK higher education, nor engaged sufficiently with other departments to develop a co-ordinated response,” the report by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee concludes.

In their report, the members of parliament (MPs) also accused universities of failing to acknowledge the problem.

The committee’s report, A Cautious Embrace: Defending democracy in an age of autocracies, voiced concern that despite there being more than 100,000 Chinese students on UK campuses, the issue of Chinese influence has been the subject of “remarkably little debate compared to that in Australia, New Zealand and the United States”.

The MPs warned that while universities have a strong incentive to establish overseas partnerships to secure funding and enhance collaboration on research projects, this should be balanced with potential risks to academic freedom.

Monitoring, pressure and harassment

The committee heard evidence from academics of tension between the increasing commercialisation of universities and academic freedom, undemocratic behaviour by pro-China students and monitoring of anti-China student activity on British campuses, monitoring and harassment of overseas students’ families back home in China, and pressure on universities to drop speakers who are critical of China or cancel events addressing issues that are sensitive in China.

Universities UK told MPs that it believes the greatest threat posed by hostile state actors to UK universities is around the “misappropriation of research output, including the theft of research data and intellectual property, which could be used to promote the military, commercial or authoritarian interests of a hostile state”.

However, Universities UK in its evidence to the inquiry did not document any specific examples of types of foreign influence in UK universities and the committee questioned whether universities were prioritising revenue-generating activities over protection of academic freedom.

The House of Commons inquiry was curtailed by the dissolution of parliament for the general election, but the report was hastily published on 5 November. It came less than two weeks after UK intelligence agencies warned university leaders to ensure that research and funding partnerships do not compromise academic freedom or make campuses vulnerable to espionage or theft.

The report concluded that the government and universities should together develop a strategy to address the challenges posed by autocracies to UK universities.

“As a starting point, the government should examine mounting evidence of foreign influence in UK universities to fully understand the extent of the problem.

“This strategy should examine the extent to which market incentives may serve to undermine academic freedom in the UK,” the MPs added.

The committee said the government should appoint a cross-departmental Whitehall champion for academic freedom to coordinate the different agencies involved in monitoring and responding to foreign influence.

“We recommend that the government engages in dialogue with Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US to explore ways to protect universities from attempts by autocracies to use their financial muscle to leverage influence through the withdrawal of funding. This could take place through existing structures such as the Commonwealth,” the report says.

The MPs backed the use and promotion of ‘trusted research’ and academic technology approval schemes to protect UK universities from intellectual theft that may arise from academic collaboration with universities from autocratic states.

But they urged the government to provide up-to-date guidance to universities on the political, diplomatic and legal implications of accepting funding and pursuing collaboration with institutions based in non-democratic states.

Indicators of excellence

International engagement and collaboration are established indicators of excellence in higher education systems, along with higher proportions of international staff and students and international co-authorship of research publications.

More than half of UK research, for instance is the product of international partnerships.

But research and international students are also important sources of income. In 2017–18, UK universities received £8.2 billion (US$10.5 billion) in research income, £1.39 billion of which came from international sources. The 437,000 international students studying in the UK – according to 2014-15 figures – are worth £26 billion (US$33 billion) to the UK economy and also bring skills and ideas to UK research and industry.

Negotiating the competing pressures of foreign influence and the legal duty to promote academic freedom is more difficult when partnering with institutions in or recruiting from autocratic and hostile states.

Autocracies’ influence over UK universities takes different forms. According to the committee, it could include:

  • • Different financial, political or diplomatic pressure to shape the research agenda or curricula of UK universities. This can happen at the macro level by providing direct or indirect financial support for research or educational activities with explicit or implicit limits on the scope of the subjects that can be discussed, or at the micro level, such as pressuring event organisers not to invite certain speakers.

  • • Attempts to limit the activities of UK university campuses or joint venture universities abroad which constrain freedoms that would normally be protected in the UK, such as criticisms of foreign governments.

  • • Pressure on UK-based researchers who focus on subjects related to the countries concerned, including through visa refusals, pressure on university leadership and pressure on relatives still living in that country.

  • • Pressure on UK-based students born in the country concerned, or on their families, to inform on the speech or activities of other students, or to engage in political protest in the UK in support of the country’s objectives.

In its evidence, Universities UK, the vice-chancellors’ body, argued that international partners, staff and students all have influence, which is legitimate and common practice, but influence should be differentiated from interference. The latter is “covert, coercive or corrupt” and “a threat to the security and integrity of UK research”.

As autonomous institutions, “universities are responsible for developing their own policies and practices for preventing foreign interference”, although they can draw on expert and professional advice and engage with government when appropriate, Universities UK said.

Universities are also legally bound to do all they can to promote academic freedom.

In England universities are legally bound by ‘Prevent’ legislation which requires them to report annually to the Office for Students on their initiatives for promoting British liberal values and their strategies for tackling extremism. This includes the combatting of anti-democratic values and influence. The higher education regulator, the Office for Students, has a duty to protect academic freedom and the autonomy of institutions.

Similar protections are in place in Scotland and Wales, the committee was told.

Currently ‘Trusted Research’ and ‘academic technology approval’ schemes are used to protect universities working in collaboration with foreign institutions, particularly in terms of protecting sensitive technology from intellectual theft.

Attempts to curb influence of norms and values

Dr Catherine Owen of the University of Exeter told the committee that the need for universities to attract more funding and grow internationally can come into conflict with the principle of academic freedom. She said this was becoming more acute as the commercialisation of global academia intensifies.

She noted that “China’s internationalising trend in higher education has been accompanied by domestic attempts to curb the influence of educational norms and values associated with the West.”

Professor Christopher Hughes of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) told MPs that he had seen Chinese students in London engaged in activities that undermine Hong Kong protesters and Chinese Confucius Institute officials confiscating papers which mention Taiwan at an academic conference.

Charles Parton of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) said that the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), which is supported and partly financed by the Chinese government, was an instrument of this interference.

“Its stated aim is to look after Chinese students, but it also reports on them to the embassy and authorities, tries to stop discussion of topics sensitive to China (Taiwan, Tibet, Tiananmen), and takes more direct action under guidance of the embassy,” he said.

Ayeshagul Nur Ibrahim, an Uighur Muslim who became politically active while studying in the UK, told the committee that the Chinese government started monitoring her and harassing her family in China.

The MPs heard evidence provided earlier by SOAS Professor Steve Tsang that in one Russell Group university a pro-vice chancellor was spoken to by someone in the Chinese embassy and as a result he stood down a speaker who was already invited.

“I am also aware of a vice-chancellor, again under pressure from the Chinese embassy, asking one of his senior academics not to make political comments on China at a specified period of time,” Tsang said.

Pressure is exerted in other ways too, the committee noted. According to one recent media report, managers at the University of Nottingham – one of two UK universities with a branch in China – pressured academics to cancel events relating to Tibet and Taiwan at the university’s Chinese and British campuses after complaints from Chinese officials.

Another reported that LSE halted a proposed China studies scheme funded by a pro-Beijing venture capitalist after academics raised concerns about its impact on academic freedom.

Threats from Russia and Central Asia

Although most of the evidence received by the committee related to China, there were claims that other autocracies posed similar risks. UCL’s Dr Peter Duncan reported that he had personal knowledge of an employee of the Russkiy Mir Foundation – a Russian government sponsored body – planting a bugging device to record an academic discussion on Russia held by the British International Studies Association in Edinburgh.

The committee was told that it is common for academics in Central Asia working on projects with UK universities to face “travel bans, ‘interviews’ with the security services, detentions for hours and days, and threats against family members by authorities”.

One Kazakh study programme is monitored by the country’s national security services, and students are subject to surveillance and control measures, including through the use of Kazakh societies on UK campuses, the committee was told.

Universities fail to acknowledge the issue

However, the committee believed representatives of universities who gave evidence to the inquiry did not acknowledge the issue. The Russell Group of research universities told the MPs that it was “not aware of any significant or systematic attempts to influence university activity by foreign actors”, and Bill Rammell, chairman of MillionPlus, a group representing 20 modern universities, said he had “not heard one piece of evidence” substantiating claims of foreign influence on campuses.

The committee did not note the work of the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI), which reports to MI5, which comes under the authority of the Home Secretary, and offers practical advice to researchers on how to protect research, manage risk and stay safe, as reported by University World News. This includes dealing with issues of due diligence, conflict of interest and segregation or control of access, both physically and online.

The committee reserved its strongest criticism for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, concluding that there are “strong signs that the FCO is not treating the issue of interference in academia as the priority it should be” and noting that it had yet to produce written guidance.

This was despite the government noting that research collaboration with institutions based in autocratic states “can be vulnerable to misuse by organisations and institutions who operate in nations whose democratic and ethical values are different from our own”.

“We believe that it is vital for the FCO to take the lead across government on this issue, given that foreign influence falls directly within the department’s remit,” the committee said.