What can the UK sector learn from the University of Queensland on China?

Close scrutiny of relationships between the University of Queensland and the Chinese Communist Party should offer a salutory warning to universities in the UK.

In what should serve as a firm warning for UK universities and regulators of the higher education sector, the University of Queensland (UQ) in Australia, has found itself enveloped in a growing crisis concerning close relations between the university and agents of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

This case of deep foreign influence within a globally significant institute, one of the largest and most successful in the southern hemisphere, is yet another call to action for the UK – and such action may be on the horizon given recent signals from Downing Street. It appears that academic affairs including research partnerships and projects will be included in forthcoming national security legislation drafted to protect the UK from the risk of foreign interference.

The threat of autocratic influence on academic freedom has played out globally for decades, – yet a 2019 House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee on the influences of autocratic regimes reported that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) had not considered or monitored for this risk in any significant manner. This flew in the face of several alarming cases of financial, political and diplomatic interference by Beijing in UK universities outlined in the Report. Among other things, the Report recommended dialogue with Australia and other Western nations concerning the risk of CCP influence. It is essential that the UK considers and learns from cases of foreign influence such as the UQ example.

Trouble in paradise

Throughout the last 18 months a series of leaks by whistle-blowers, and the actions of an activist student and university senator, a loud-mouthed Australian undergraduate at UQ named Drew Pavlou, have exposed revelations that were recently placed on the public record in the Australian Senate. Pavlou has now found himself expelled from UQ for two years, pending appeals, after confidential disciplinary proceedings brought against him by UQ.

Many of the revelations concern the UQ Confucius Institute. Confucius Institutes are a global phenomenon that have sparked much controversy across Western democracies, predominantly because they have given Beijing a strong point of influence that to date has largely evaded foreign interference oversight. There are currently at least 29 Confucius Institutes in the UK. As put by the former chief propagandist for the CCP Politburo Standing Committee Li Changchuan, Confucius Institutes are “…an important channel to glorify Chinese culture, to help Chinese culture spread to the world”, which is “…part of China’s foreign propaganda strategy”.

At the very least, Confucius Institutes must be understood as a soft power arm of Chinese foreign policy. This alone may not be nefarious, however, in 2019 Human Rights Watch concluded that Confucius Institutes are extensions of the Chinese government and that they censor topics and perspectives in course materials on political grounds, as the CCP does in China. It has been revealed that UQ Vice-Chancellor Høj was a listed “senior consultant” for the controlling body of the Confucius Institutes, Hanban, and a “regional delegate” on the Confucius Institute Council in 2017. Høj subsequently received an AUD$200,000 (GBP£106,000) bonus for meeting a contractual KPI to bring UQ closer ties to China.

Høj had most certainly met this KPI, for under his watch the number of Chinese nationals studying at UQ had risen to some 11,000 students. In recent years these students have made up over 60% of UQ’s total intake of international students and provided the university with at least AUD$400million (GBP£215million) in revenue each year – an extraordinary 20% of UQ’s total revenue.

Even more concerning is the revelation that the UQ Confucius Institute was providing direct funding for the teaching of four courses within degree awarding programs. One course was on China’s role in “strengthening” responses to “global security challenges”, such as human rights, “mass atrocities prevention” and “counterterrorism”. This is a clear case of influence in academia, where an autocratic foreign state is paying for the delivery of content within an independent Australian public university. UQ also raised eyebrows with its initially secret appointment of the serving Chinese Consul-General in Brisbane to an honorary professorship at around the same time the Consul was engaged in a legal dispute with the now suspended activist university senator who had been blowing the whistle on UQ ties to the CCP.

This appointment only became public after Chinese reporting and photos emerged on CCP websites. How this case continues to develop should be closely watched by regulators and universities abroad.

Lessons for the UK

What should we take from this sordid situation in Queensland? Perhaps it is obvious that the allure of significant and ongoing Chinese investment through large numbers of students can be so overwhelming that cash-strapped universities may throw their arms wide open without doing their due diligence.

The UK is at risk of this. Chinese nationals now represent more than 10% of all revenue at a number of universities across the UK and one-third of all non-EU students at UK universities are from China. Should these trends continue, UK universities will certainly feel mounting pressure to keep relations with China rosy.

The UQ example speaks to a deep problem – that a nationally and globally significant institution, a “sandstone university” in Australia, which enjoys an almost assured supply of tens of thousands of domestic and international students alike, could become so sustained, or tempted, by one source of income that they choose to align themselves with the interests of those who ultimately control the tap – in this case the CCP.

It is worth noting that UQ became embroiled in such a situation despite their Chancellor, Mr Peter Varghese, seemingly being one of the best placed leaders in Australia to assess for and manage foreign interference. Varghese was Secretary of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade immediately prior to his appointment at UQ and Director-General of the Australian Office of National Assessments, the Australian equivalent to the UK Joint Intelligence Organisation, prior to that. Regulators of the higher education sector and those tasked with controlling foreign interests here in the UK must move to prevent this situation from repeating. The ultimate lesson for the UK: no institution should be immune from scrutiny.

Concerningly, it appears some university administrators in the UK would prefer that the public and government not delve into the relations they have with autocratic regimes. The Russell Group of universities told the 2019 House of Commons committee that they were not aware of any attempts by foreign actors to influence university activity in the UK at all, despite the Committee finding “mounting evidence” of the same. The conclusions of the cross-party Committee were scathing of the FCO for neglecting the university sector from schemes to protect the UK from foreign influence and for not engaging with counterparts in Australia, Canada and the US to share best practice for the protection of academic freedom.

Given the long term gradual decline in public support that governments are willing to offer universities, and the precipitous economic down-turn from the covid-19 crisis, regulators should now be looking to assist institutions in their recovery in a way that guarantees the door is not left ajar for non-benevolent external actors. Both the economic argument, thrown into sharp relief by covid-19, and the national security argument for sector wide standards concerning diversification of income streams are compelling.

As recently noted here on Wonkhe, the risk of vulnerability to a collapse in international student numbers is not uniform across the sector. And while all institutions must be scrutinised and supported, some may need more support than others. Institutions perceived to be less prestigious, the newer, smaller and regional institutions, may be at the greatest risk and as such should be first in line for support in re-establishing sustainable operating mechanisms. Further, recent announcements of Chinese investment via vexed teleco Huawei at some 20 major UK universities will certainly influence discussion as Downing Street considers ways of bringing the university sector within reach of foreign interference regulators.

Finally, we need to resist a tendency whereby any government, organisation or individual that speaks up about this issue is accused of maintaining a “cold war mentality”, or of being a ‘hawk’ on geo-political affairs with the intention of fanning the flames of xenophobia and conflict. This is disingenuous. The CCP is an autocracy whose only role in our academia should be as a subject of inquiry. The CCP is oppressing millions of their own citizens on religious and ethnic grounds and is denying the peoples of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Tibet the right to self-determination.

Allowing universities to trade independence for financial reward by turning a blind eye to these facts renders us complicit to the atrocities that are being performed by the CCP. It is crucial that the UK mounts a determined effort to resist foreign pressure from autocratic regimes within our universities, and that we do so with an assuring command of the economic and security evidence to support the case for such an effort.

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