Universities and foreign policy summer round up

Universities and their approach to foreign policy has been in the news again this summer. James Coe takes a look back and sets out the international security debates that will shape the year ahead

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

It has been a busy summer for politicians, policy makers, thinkers, and universities, debating the role of higher education in global affairs.

Before we get to the summer proper let’s cast our collective minds back to early June where in a previous edition of Wonkhe I wrote that:

in a world in which the UK is facing major international challenges arising from Brexit, hostile nations, and geopolitical instability in other parts of the world, should universities start thinking of themselves as de facto foreign policy actors in their own right?

Over the summer this question has started to come to a head. Parliamentary committees, charities, and think-tanks have been looking at the extent to which universities might further, or inhibit, or in some cases work in opposition to, UK foreign policy.

Home and away

The cumulative impact of these debates is that it makes it harder for universities to stay quiet on their work abroad when the noise at home suggests that some of their work is unduly risky.

Let’s start off with China. The competition for economic global dominance between China, the US, and Europe, is the preeminent geopolitical concern of our time. It is therefore inevitable that as producers of world-leading research with distinct economic, and sometimes military, applications UK universities are participants on this particular global stage whether they wish to be or not.

The proper regulation of UK universities’ engagement with universities, businesses, and state actors in China has been considered repeatedly. Back in 2022 through the Freedom of Speech (Higher Education) Bill legislators wrestled with university gifts and partnerships. In February 2023 the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee considered the appropriate regulation of universities in engaging with China and autocratic states. The committee was fairly measured. Members suggested that while academics sometimes acted like they were free of geopolitical constraints, the legislative framework for universities and their international engagement was broadly working.

Fast forward to summer 2023 and there has been a noticeable change in tone. Over the summer the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee reported again. Tilting horizons: the Integrated Review and the Indo-Pacific is principally concerned with the grand issues of global security, diplomatic norms, and international rules, but there is also significant attention paid to universities and their role as foreign policy actors.


The key challenge to universities within the report is that the government has a sometimes cooperative, sometimes adversarial, and often deeply confused relationship with China. In turn, this means that it is also difficult for universities to know how they should work with businesses and academics within China where activity is legal but has implications on the sale and production of knowledge. For example, it is difficult to imagine a UK university being able to write, with confidence, a document like the one MIT has produced which reconciles national policy objectives with activity taking place at the University.

In the view of the committee this confusion does not remove universities’ responsibilities toward the global community. The report states that UK universities should have a role in inoculating themselves against any overreliance on one country partner. Clearly, this is not only a risk for universities themselves but for one of the UK’s greatest assets, our higher education system. Part of this rebalancing also imagines UK universities as playing a role in exerting soft power in the wider Indo-Pacific region.

The work of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament is somewhat more alarming. For those not familiar with the work of this committee it oversees the work of the British intelligence agencies and produces a mixture of sensitive, redacted, and occasionally public reports.

In China the committee identifies that the single greatest threat to the UK from China is their continued objective to achieve global technological and economic dominance. This comes alongside the threat of wide scale international espionage. Within this frame there are multiple references to universities. It is worth noting that the publication of this report is not contemporaneous with the investigation and evidence gathering so some information is out of date.

The committee asserts that while evidence is still emerging it seems the Chinese Government seeks to exert influence over UK academia in two ways. The first is through exerting pressure on UK universities and academics on the way they debate and discuss China’s political activity. The second is through acquiring intellectual property produced in UK universities. The report highlights evidence and testimony that suggests this influence could manifest in:

  • Self-censorship by universities to avoid the loss of income from Chinese student recruitment
  • The refusal of visas by the Chinese government for UK academics that have been critical of China
  • An extensive influence of Confucius societies in the activities of UK universities
  • The monitoring of students engaged in political protest
  • IP theft and economic coercion
  • Potentially risky collaborations around dual-use technologies

There are two fundamental issues for universities raised here. There are a set of issues where universities are potential political targets and the UK government’s approach of strategic ambiguity is unhelpful. There is then a more concerning suggestion that universities are so dependent on China that it influences their decision making.


If the relationship with China is complex, the relationship with Iran – which attracted interest over the summer – should in theory be more straightforward. There are strict limitations on the kinds of activities that can be carried out with Iran owing to the sanctions regime.

In June, The Jewish Chronicle reported that “Scientists at British universities helped the Iranian regime develop technology that can be used in its drone programme and fighter jets” The paper also raised point that “British sanctions law prohibits the transfer of both military and “dual use” technology to Iran or anyone “connected” with it.”

The idea of UK universities contributing to drone research in Iran has attracted concern from politicians across parties and across the political spectrum. Alicia Kearns, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, has called for an inquiry into these collaborations.

If a public inquiry takes place (in addition to ongoing government investigations) as well as focussing on the issue of sanctions, dual-use technologies, and safe-collaborations it will likely focus on three key institutional issues for universities:

  1. The extent to which universities are confident that their academics are not inadvertently breaking sanctions regimes, and how they know this to be the case.
  2. The processes that universities have in place to ensure that their academics are not receiving funding, or placed under undue influence, by a foreign state or hostile actors.
  3. The mechanisms universities have in place to evaluate, approve, and monitor research collaborations that are risky owing to their partners of the nature of the research.

The focus on Iran will bring forward another discussion on whether UK universities actions are aligned with the UK’s foreign policy goals. Alongside the ongoing debate on the UK’s relationship with China it will become increasingly difficult for universities to avoid entering the debate on their role as foreign policy actors.

The challenge for universities is to ensure processes are robust while not being unduly bureaucratic, to be open to partners while closing down risk, to pursue research excellence wherever it may be while preserving the UK’s research advantages, and being clear with who they work with under which conditions while navigating the ambiguity of UK foreign policy.

One response to “Universities and foreign policy summer round up

  1. Congratulations for trying to address the elephant in the room re-China’s influence in UK Academia, something some of us have been warning about since the last millennia.

    Chinese state actors (CCP political officers) are embedded in many UK Universities, often under the guise of Confucius Institute sponsored support workers in admin roles, though the worst case of attempted intimidation of a Chinese extraction Academic at my University involved one who was working as a technician/research assistant. Similarly on courses with predominately Chinese students there’s often a CCP political officer within the student cohort, Academic’s who teach them can tell pretty quickly who they are as the rest of the students defer to them, rather than attract their wrath on them, or their parents at home in China.

    Dual use is often a misnomer, with DARPA and DRA direct research contract work especially so, how many of those projects have been compromised will never be made public, but the embedded Chinese assets, willing or not, are often placed where they have not just sight of but often access to such research and the resulting I.P.

    IF the UK, University sector and Government, wants to address these issues the UK Government will need to replace the financial gifts, sponsored staff, and student monies our Universities have come to rely on. With too many Universities having become over-reliant on those income streams it’s going to be expensive to deal with.

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