Speakers agreed that while international collaborations “are key to the UK”, potential risks need to be taken seriously but should not “outweigh” the benefits of working with international partners.
“If we want to be a research superpower, if we want inward investment, we need those international collaborations,” said Colin Bailey, president and principal of Queen Mary, University of London. “And if we want influence as global Britain, we need those education links.”
“I would much prefer it if universities could sit in isolation from politics, but I recognise that that is naive, and I don’t believe it to be true,” noted University of Edinburgh principal and vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson. “But I do believe that we have a job to do and we have an internationalisation mission which is good for the UK, good for our students, good for our economy, good for our staff.
“I don’t think we should feel that the security risks should overweigh all the other benefits”
“Whilst there are risks associated with, particularly the over-dependence on one jurisdiction – which I again accept is currently true – I don’t think we should feel that the security risks should overweigh all the other benefits.”
But at the same time, institutions should not be afraid to break off international collaborations with partners that do not align with their values.
Mathieson explained that in recent exchanges with security agencies, they had been surprised to find that his university had turned down opportunities in some parts of the world, where “we decide it doesn’t suit us or we don’t align ourselves with what they want or we believe there are too many risks”.
“We actually make those decisions every day of the week,” Mathieson, who was speaking in a debate session, said. “We actually do see these risks and actually we do sometimes make our own decisions to turn down money, without anybody from government or security agencies telling us to.”
The observations chimed with University of Liverpool vice-chancellor Janet Beer’s comments at British Council’s 2021 Going Global conference, when she said the sector “can’t be naive”.
“You have to pick your way carefully and you have to make sure that staff and students are protected, but we cannot fail in our duty to work across borders,” Beer said in 2021.
Speaking at IHEF22, Beer said that working in difficult situations and in the context of Ukraine – UUK has suspended a memorandum of understanding with Russian Union of Rectors following its open letter of support for the invasion – that the British Council has an appropriate mantra. “Remember the good people,” she said.
Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, UUK has said that it does not support blanket academic boycotts and its members should make decisions about whether to continue collaborations on a case-by-case basis.
Andrea Nolan, principal and vice-chancellor, Edinburgh Napier University detailed a plan that was eventually scrapped, but as a result of a wide range of issues, not only due to the potential risk associated with it.
The partnership she relayed was with an institution in a country where “same-sex partnerships are illegal, LGBTQi+ people face discrimination, harassment, intimidation and potentially very severe imprisonment consequences”, she noted.
“Given that one of four core values of the university is being inclusive… we opened up a conversation [with a broad range of university stakeholders] to see what was acceptable while understanding that engaging for education is a powerful way of influencing change,” she said.
“The values of our partner matched, that’s a different issue from the values of the jurisdiction you’re going into,” she added, but nonetheless the project was not taken forward.
The values was also touched on by Bailey at Queen Mary, University of London.
“Our values drive everything. Our values are key. We will never compromise any of our values. If our values were compromised in any way, we would walk away from the partnership,” he said. “You need to know everything you can about your partner and what stands behind your partner as well.”
The rector of the University of Oslo Svein Stølen provided an example of collaborating with Fudan University in China.
“We have worked with Fudan for 25 years and are a founding member of the Nordic Centre Fudan, located at the Fudan campus with limited staff, but in a separate building.”
He detailed that Oslo stepped in when a Danish university decided not to host a Fudan European Centre for China studies in recent years.
“After a long internal process, we decided to offer to host this centre,” he said. “It’s one person in one office here at the Faculty of Humanities in Oslo, and the decision was made on the strong belief in academic cooperation, also with institutional research in non-democratic countries.”
But collaboration must be done in a secure way, he continued.
“Although we were quite sure that this would be debated externally, we decided to enter this collaborative agreement.
“The fear of a negative response proved, of course, absolutely correct. Both the main newspapers and the Norwegian Broadcasting Company accused the University of Oslo of being naive in relation to collaboration with China.
“The public debate was living its own life and was practically demonising the centre so to say”
“I had to defend the decision on debates on prime time television and the fact that the University of Oslo and Norwegian institutions in general produce several hundred papers coauthored with Chinese researchers every year, did not reach the surface of the debate. The public debate was living its own life and was practically demonising the centre so to say.”
Unlike Confucius centres, this centre is not financed and controlled by Chinese state, but financed equally with Fudan, he said.
“The easy way would be not to host a centre. This would have saved us from a lot of negative airplay. Still, this would be unwise in long term. We need to stand up clearly for global academia.”