If you heard recent debates in Parliament or read the news this week you would be forgiven for thinking that when it comes to security universities, students, and researchers are risks to be managed.
This view does not reflect the substantial contribution that universities and other institutions make to national security and resilience.
Universities as security assets
If you consider the key elements of the strategic framework set out in the 2021 integrated review, universities are well placed to take a leadership role in national security.
Russell Group universities across the country are at the forefront of R&D in emerging areas of technology that are providing the UK with a strategic advantage through science. Breakthroughs in fields like AI, driven by university research, are not only spurring economic growth, but also shaping our response to global challenges such as climate change.
University R&D is also at the heart of efforts to build UK resilience to new risks like the recent cyber-attacks we saw against the Guardian newspaper and Royal Mail.
For example, in 2017 the University of Cardiff launched the Airbus Centre of Excellence in Cyber Security, a leading research unit for cyber security analytics which uses applied data science and artificial intelligence methods to boost our understanding of cyber risk and threat intelligence. As the first centre of its kind in Europe, this resource is strategically positioning the UK as a leader in cybersecurity analytics and AI insights on cyber threats.
To his credit, Science Minister George Freeman understands the role that higher education can play here. In a recent speech he argued science, research and innovation are key to not only our economic strength as a nation but also to our security. Why? Because solutions to global challenges like climate change, food shortages and disease don’t just save lives in direct ways: they also reduce geopolitical tension and opportunities for extremists to exploit poverty and radicalise individuals who feel they have no other options.
New danger new legislation
Direction from the top saw civil servants draw up and implement legislation like the National Security and Investment Act in a way that protects national security but, through regular dialogue with the sector, doesn’t hamper innovation. Programmes like the RCAT are helping universities up their game in disrupting hostile activity and combine selected overseas engagement with targeted risk management.
However, as a sector we cannot always rely on supportive and knowledgeable ministerial input. And positive work behind the scenes has not always translated into wider understanding in the House of Commons of the contribution our universities make to UK resilience.
Ultimately, officials and the technical security agencies take their direction from politicians. Discussion of national security at Westminster today will shape the regulations, guidance and restrictions that could be put in place tomorrow. Changing the political conversation around universities and security to cover more than just risk is essential to ensuring decisions on how to keep us safe are based on hard facts.
To Parliament and beyond
Increased parliamentary understanding of the capacity within universities to contribute to our resilience will help ensure opportunities to protect the UK better are not missed. It would also reduce the prospect of well-intentioned but poorly targeted interventions stifling international activities which could support UK resilience. Enhanced, informed scrutiny by MPs of the proposed Foreign Influence Registration Scheme, for example, could have helped address issues such as duplicative requirements to register partnerships already declared under other legislation.
For universities, changing the view of our activities to reflect not only threats but also the strengths of our world-leading higher education sector in security will be crucial to making the positive case for policies on everything from R&D partnerships to immigration and international student recruitment. This isn’t about ignoring genuine security risks. It’s about ensuring policy decisions are taken on the basis of balanced evidence.
We are at a moment in time when the risks we face as a nation are evolving rapidly. New fields such as AI and quantum are changing the threat landscape constantly. Universities are already using their expertise to put the UK in a leadership role in these emerging research areas. We are contributing to defence R&D and boosting UK soft power too. It’s time for those of us working in the sector to start talking up the contribution our institutions make to our national security.