Turning scrutiny on security into a new security strategy

For James Coe, there’s an opportunity to define a new university security agenda based on soft-power, economic cooperation and continual engagement

James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

There is hardly a week goes by that universities are not implicated in a debate, story, or surprise announcement about national security.

At the end of April Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden briefed twenty four universities on his intention to launch a new consultation on universities and national security. He said that:

For a millennium, our universities have thrived on being open. Open to ideas, open to innovation, open to being independent of Government. This is not about erecting fences, this is about balancing evolving threats and protecting the integrity and security of our great institutions.

Openness is not only about being open to ideas but being open to people. In universities this includes staff and students from close allies, economic rivals, international cooperators and competitors, and almost anyone with shared interests with our universities.

There are relatively few, although gradually increasing, formal restrictions placed on university collaborations but there are implied restrictions in guidance and government missives. This means universities are operating in a space of strategic ambiguity. They can work with almost whoever they want but that doesn’t mean the government will not chastise or punish them for doing so.

Alarmingly, recent announcements by the government not only paint universities as caught up in espionage and statecraft but as unwitting victims and sometimes enablers of foreign interference. As Dowden said in a speech to Chatham House, “we must ensure that some universities’ reliance on foreign funding does not become a dependency by which they can be influenced, exploited, or even coerced.”

Strategic ambiguity

There currently seems to be a lot of ambiguity without much strategy. Dowden has promised a consultation on protecting UK universities from security threats. This will include options in:

  • exploring the feasibility of extending security clearance to key personnel within universities;
  • funding options to develop research security capability within universities;
  • establish a working group with government and research sector representatives, tasked with developing proposals for a new professional standard for research security practitioners;
  • greater responsibilities and resources for the world-leading Research Collaboration Advice Team (RCAT);
  • strengthened reporting processes to improve the transparency of funding flows and where they originate; and
  • evaluation to understand the long-term impact of the implementation of existing security measures.

On their own terms each of these may have some merit (aside from the bureaucracy of additional checks, groups, and delegations), but they begin from a position that university work is primarily a risk to be managed. It is more tactical support than it is strategic intervention.

Progressive realism

Simultaneously to Dowden’s demurring, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy has been setting out his strategic view of the UK’s place in the world.

His big idea is that a future Labour government will adopt a policy of “progressive realism.” This is the idea that the UK should be realistic about its place in the world while using its influence to achieve progressive ends.

In Lammy’s case he positions the UK as part of a grand coalition of European and Anglophone nations which can pursue progressive ends like climate justice while acting as a counterweight to an emerging multi-polar world including Brazil, India, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. In reality, Lammy’s urge to de-risk and not de-couple is not far away from Dowden’s own views.

Lammy only briefly mentions universities in his extensive essay. He sees universities alongside the likes of the BBC as having been attacked by the government and in turn reducing the country’s “soft-power”.

And his prescription is partially correct. It is difficult to imagine a government talking about businesses and their interactions with global partners and rivals in the same way they do about universities. The issue with Lammy’s point is that embracing a more cooperative foreign policy is not realistic without rethinking the international security role of universities.

Strategic realism

The other area that Dowden and Lammy likely have more in common than they imagine is that their foreign policy overplays the passivity of universities.

While Dowden talks of respecting university autonomy, the core of his strategy is to delegate away some oversight, responsibility, and resources, potentially using legal powers, for the management of security affairs. Lammy is concerned about the erosion of university soft power but Labour has few policies or ideas on promoting the role of universities in the world.

This means the strategic role of universities in promoting the UK’s security interests remains ambiguous. There is an urgent but unanswered question on how to combine a more strategic view of universities and security within a realistic framework of their own capabilities.

Three star treatment

The problem with strategic ambiguity as a policy is that ambiguity does not breed flexible approaches. It breeds conservatism to avoid penalty. And conservatism where it manifests as reduced partnerships, funding, or engagement with the world, will reduce the UK’s collective global knowledge, partnerships, and economic power and in doing so only increase security risk.

The urgency for action scrutiny brings can help create a new settlement with universities as partners in international security. In particular, universities can strengthen the UK’s international security through building soft power, economic cooperation, and continual engagement.

There are lots of agencies, bodies, and funders promoting the soft power of universities but little strategic sense of how this work might be strengthened by the government. For example, there is little joined up thinking in the link between the wider financial squeeze on university’s finances, the subsequent reduction of their cultural capacity in their programmes, museums, galleries, and other creative outputs, and the diminishment of the UK’s visibility on the world stage. There is an important security element to building relationships through visits, cultural exchange, and growing understanding through the arts.

Soft power is also about a sense of shared interest and effort. Aside from the hard end of security skills, there is a significant decline in language provision which in turn hampers the kind of visits and exchanges which helps the UK’s place in the world.

A second element of a new security settlement should be greater emphasis on fostering economic ties. For example, a potential downside of a wariness of working with China is that UK universities simply allow relationships to erode through a gradual disengagement. The intertwined research strengths of the UK and China has been discussed as a risk but it is also a strength as well.  Keeping systemic challenges at a distance does not make them disappear; it simply makes them harder to track. Universities, for their part, could learn from the likes of MIT who is extremely clear on the basis of their economic cooperation.

It is strengthening the UK’s economic performance while strengthening internal security architecture which is the kind of de-risking not de-coupling that both Lammy and Dowden have spoken about. The government’s economic ambitions within a clearer security framework is a place where universities can support their wider global ambitions.

And from greater clarity can come greater support for the work universities do to continually promote the UK around the globe. In spite of Brexit, US presidential elections, and changing governments across the globe, UK universities have maintained strong and various international relationships. They are a sort of permanent international face of the UK even where politics can be transient.

The reason why there is a global race for technology, resources, and ideas, is to gain economic advantage in a multi-polar world. These issues will only become more acute where there is material scarcity of resources wrought by climate disaster, conflict across the globe, or AI and technological threats of which we cannot yet even imagine. Universities are in the business of continually building coalitions of the willing to tackle such enormous challenge. This could not be more important as the alternative idea that the world is made safer by less cooperation and a race for ever scarcer resources to tackle ever larger challenges is plainly fanciful.

For now

A strategic direction for universities and security is well overdue. UK higher education is fundamentally an international endeavour and anything which harms this cause will harm the UK overall. Simultaneously,the government is well within its rights to have high expectations of universities where the security of the nation is at risk.

Universities have the opportunity to work with the government in a spirit of partnership to secure a more stable short-term settlement of greater clarity with new resources allocated to the appropriate agencies.

In the longer-term the current discussion on universities and security gives the sector the opportunity to seize the agenda on how they can contribute to one of the country’s most important obligations. A place to start could be an agenda on soft-power, economic cooperation, and ongoing collaboration.

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