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UK government consults on protection measures for universities

The UK government's approach to foreign interference at universities has been "genuinely helpful" to mitigate security risks, UUK has said, but acknowledges gaps need to be strengthened.
April 26 2024
3 Min Read

UK universities are well aware of the threats of malign actors and the current government approach to foreign interference has been “genuinely helpful” to mitigate further risk, the head of organisation representing over 140 universities has said.

CEO of Universities UK, Vivienne Stern, was speaking following a meeting of vice chancellors from 24 universities with MI5 head Ken McCallum and National Cyber Security Centre chief Felicity Oswald this week.

The UK government is beginning consultations on security with the higher education sector, which will focus on protecting sensitive research, intellectual property theft and dependency on foreign investment.

Authorities are said to be looking into requiring key university personnel to undergo additional security clearance, seeking greater transparency about funding and its origins and enhancing security around research in universities.

“Universities are really frequently targets of malign actors,” Vivienne Stern told BBC Radio 4’s today program on April 26.

“People who either want to get access to cutting-edge research or who would like to infiltrate information that they think could be useful to them. This is pretty well understood. And in fact, we’ve been working pretty closely with government for several years to try and make sure universities are well equipped to understand and, where possible, mitigate risk.”

Universities already undergo “really detailed” background checks before entering into research partnerships, she noted.

“It’s one of those things where you think government’s actually been genuinely quite helpful in creating an infrastructure which allows universities to seek advice from those people in government who understand the nature of the precise threats in a way that the academics might not.

“That kind of structure has enabled us to, first of all, understand what universities should be looking for, and secondly, when they’re not sure they can draw on advice from people who will have an [additional] insight.

“What the government did yesterday was talk about, ‘okay, so we’ve done a whole bunch of things together. It’s been reasonably effective. What’s next where the gaps where the things that we need to strengthen?'”

Former head of the National Cyber Security Centre, Ciaran Martin, told the same program that security agencies are concerned with three main activities – personnel, intellectual property theft and potential abuse within international research partnerships.

“Academia is by nature collaborative and international, and that’s, broadly speaking, a very positive thing for the UK, but sometimes that can be abused. I think the government has been concerned about whether the right deals are being struck, whether things like transfer of key technology and intellectual property [theft] are happening,” he said.

“Academia is by nature collaborative and international, and that’s, broadly speaking, a very positive thing for the UK”

The “partnership dialogue” with the university sector is a “sensible way of doing it”, but he warned that it is not reasonable for government to “subcontract” operations such as granting visas, vetting individuals or monitoring activities.

“But there may come a time where government needs to give either more explicit guidance or be more directive because there have been some cases that the media and others have highlighted where there have been concerns about individual transactions, for example with China,” he said.

Government has not named any countries in particular but some in the sector feel that institutions are being directed on how to collaborate with partners in China.

A report released last July by the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament on China warned that Chinese Intelligence Services fund universities to both “influence research direction towards Chinese
priorities and to gain access to prominent individuals through philanthropy”.

It said that China exerts “control and influence” through student fees – which accounted for almost £600m in 2017/18 – as well as provides direct investment to academic institutions.

It does so in a bid to “guarantee input into academic programmes, direct research and ensure that UK students are taught an interpretation of China that reflects the CCP’s interests”, the committee added.

Examples of this can be the countries and territories included in maps within joint scientific research projects. For example, Taiwan or Tibet may be excluded due to pressure from Chinese authorities.

Government has worked with UUK to develop guidelines on countering foreign interference, which the committee said included a need to diversify universities’ international student recruitment.

“For a millennium, our universities have thrived on being open – open to ideas, open to innovation, open to being independent of government,” UK deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden said this week.

“This is not about erecting fences, this is about balancing evolving threats and protecting the integrity and security of our great institutions.”

In a statement to The PIE, Stern added that the collaboration with UK government is “important and necessary”.

“We welcome the government’s approach to working hand in hand with us to get the mechanisms right.

“This consultation is an important next step, and we will gather views from all 142 universities in our membership to help Government develop the right approach, which allows us to balance the need to remain open to collaboration with the need to protect national and university interests,” she concluded.


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