Clear eyes and guidance needed on international partnerships

Should the government be regulating and legislating more on UK universities’ engagement with China and other autocratic states? Or less? Or better?

Michael Salmon is News Editor at Wonkhe

This was the question being raised at the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday, both by MPs and sector representatives.

While the tone of the hearing was cordial and detail-focused, committee chair Alicia Kearns was in no doubt of the big picture:

We have a great number of concerns at the committee that academia seems to behave as if it is free of geopolitics – it is not.

The committee was following up on its critical 2019 report on the influence of autocracies in academia, and the hearing had been preceded by a call for evidence which closed last week. While it was a “non-inquiry session” rather than the first in a more substantial series, we should still expect to hear more about the committee’s take on the submissions it has gathered.

The reason for this follow-up looked to be certain stories and reports that have appeared in the interim – The Times’ coverage of Chinese defence companies funding UK research institutes and Civitas’ report on universities’ links to the Chinese military both got a mention. A question mark was hanging over the need for further legislation and regulation.

Both City, University of London principal Anthony Finkelstein and Universities UK chief executive Vivienne Stern pointed to the complexity of the legislative and regulatory environment as it currently stands, and sought simplicity from government, such as a UK-China policy that would clearly demarcate red lines. Vivienne Stern also sought to refute “the suggestion that universities prioritise financial considerations over academic freedom.” The need for universities to be “clear-eyed” on China was referred to by multiple speakers.

Those invited, including some fairly critical of universities’ international collaborations with China and other countries, generally felt that there had been progress since 2019 – enhanced due diligence, new security units in universities, and much better lines of communication with government and across the sector were given as examples.

What academics do

John Heathershaw, an academic at University of Exeter, was one of the more critical voices. He argued that the issues around international research need to be approached through the lens of research ethics, and that expertise from the academic community – rather than at the institutional process level – is not being drawn on enough.

Fiona Quimbre from RAND Europe drew on the research institute’s report from last year to argue that both universities and the government are thinking about risk is too narrow a way, pointing to “vectors of influence” including China’s talent recruitment programmes, student associations and certain forms of donation which are not being given the same priority in risk assessments as IP theft and hacking.

She also suggested that academics would like clear guidance on which Chinese organisations they can collaborate with, and on what topics. Equally though, she suggested that bibliometrics and checking where academics have lived or travelled are needed to fully conduct due diligence.

Go forth and diversify

Education committee chair Robin Walker had also been invited, and conducted his own mini-inquiry into how student recruitment from China fits into the picture – was a concern over a potential fall in student numbers having an impact on how broader international engagement was conducted?

The sector representatives were clear that diversification of international student recruitment was important – but funding, rather than concerns over research security, was the clear main lens here. Anthony Finkelstein argued that a rise in recruitment of students from India and Nigeria “adds significantly to the robustness of our higher education funding system”. The importance of the graduate route was predictably stressed.

Confucius Institutes were the final item for consideration – Russell Group chief executive Tim Bradshaw argued that they were “generally beneficial” as a voluntary and optional language and culture resource, and Alan Mackay, Deputy Vice-Principal International at University of Edinburgh summarised the university’s recent “forensic” review of its institute, which found “no evidence of interference with academic freedom or nefarious activity.” It was suggested that, if the government were to ban Confucius Institutes, it needs to find another way to fund initiatives that will promote better understanding and communication with China.

Overall, the hearing avoided hyperbole and no committee member took immediate umbrage with the general consensus that progress is being made. But the fact that additional legislation and regulation was in some cases driving the improvements – the role of export controls on curtailing controversial partnerships was returned to regularly – may prove to be the takeaway point, rather than the need for government action to be clearer and more focused.

2 responses to “Clear eyes and guidance needed on international partnerships

  1. I agree that this was a helpful discussion although it did show the distance between Westminster and the universities. One point missing from Michael’s account: the FAC conducted its business with the implied premise that China is the only subject worth discussing. The headline was “autocratic states” but I heard nothing about Saudi and other regimes in MENA.

    1. Very true – nary a mention. The committee’s focus is overwhelmingly on China, and the UK’s “national interest” as pertains. Alicia Kearns argued that the UK is not currently protecting its national interest when it comes to working with China.

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