In November 2019, a Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry found “alarming evidence” of Chinese interference on UK campuses, and that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was failing to protect academic freedom in the country.
“The protection of academic freedom and freedom of speech lies at the heart of our HE system”
Entitled A cautious embrace: defending democracy in an age of autocracies, the FAC inquiry said that the FCO’s role in advising universities on the potential threats to academia from autocracies had been “non-existent”.
It also claimed that the UK government had not engaged sufficiently with other departments to develop a coordinated response.
Now the FCO has responded to the inquiry, acknowledging that academic research and innovation could be exploited by state or state-linked actors which do not respect fundamental rights and freedoms or who are hostile to UK interests.
“The protection of academic freedom and freedom of speech lies at the heart of our higher education system,” the response read.
“The government is clear that any attempts to interfere with these core values will not be tolerated.”
According to FCO, there have been cases of autocratic state actors putting pressure on universities and academics in the UK to avoid certain topics or self-censor their research or course content.
The department also explained that there have been reports of pressure or influence being exerted on overseas students and autocratic state actors targeting research collaboration.
UK government departments, including the FCO, the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy are now working together to identify and mitigate these risks.
The FCO has also turned to the HE sector and tasked Universities UK with addressing the full range of risks to institutions.
“In light of the evolving threat of foreign interference to the higher education sector’s core values, infrastructure and research collaborations, the government has asked UUK to accelerate and expand their efforts—and the task and finish group they have established—to address the full range of risks,” the FCO response explained.
“Government will continue to support this sector-led approach by providing specialist advice and expertise.
“We consider that this sector-led approach, supported by the government, is the most effective strategy to address this challenge.”
A UUK spokesperson told The PIE that UK universities are global institutions and the value of their education, research and collaborations with global partners is essential.
“Academic freedom, freedom of speech and institutional autonomy are critical to the success of the UK’s universities,” they noted.
“Protecting these characteristics in a constantly evolving landscape is of the utmost importance.
“Following the government’s response to the FAC report, Universities UK continues to work with the UK government on a range of initiatives to make sure that decisionmakers at universities have the information, advice and guidance they need to make informed choices.”
The spokesperson said that UUK is set to publish guidelines to support decisionmakers in the autumn.
Countries around the world are keen to cooperate and share best practice to tackle the issue of foreign interference, according to the FCO.
The department explained that it is engaging with international partners including counterparts in the US and Australia, on the threats to academia.
The FCO is using a network of posts, as well as bilateral and multilateral meetings in London and overseas at senior-official level, to raise the issue of interference in academia with trusted partners.
The threat of autocracies using financial muscle to leverage influence through the withdrawal of funding was brought up in the FAC’s initial inquiry.
In response, the FCO has explained that greater student diversity will play a key role in protecting academic freedom.
“The government is aware that some autocratic states have been known to use the threat of financial leverage to achieve their goals,” the response noted.
“Universities will be well aware of the possible risks associated with dependence on a single source of funding, whether that is from a single organisation or from a single nation.”
The FCO said that the government’s International Education Strategy, which seeks to increase the number of international students in the UK to 600,000, will help to diversify student recruitment.
“Recruiting international students on a sustainable basis is one way in which universities can protect themselves from these risks,” the FCO said.
“Universities will be well aware of the possible risks associated with dependence on a single source of funding”
During the initial inquiry, the FAC suggested that the UK engage with Commonwealth countries to diversify student recruitment, and this point was acknowledged by the FCO.
Nick Hillman, director of higher education think tank HEPI, said that some thought had gone into the government’s response but that it is “a little overly defensive and not altogether clear on international students.”
“It warns universities against relying on too few income streams before telling them to recruit international students from a broader range of countries,” he told The PIE.
“This is odd for two reasons. First, recruiting international students is done, in part, precisely to diversify income streams compared to the past.
“Secondly, if universities have been over-reliant on Chinese students’ fees relative to fees from other students, this is mainly the Government’s own responsibility – or rather the responsibility of the earlier [David] Cameron and [Theresa] May governments.”