Free speech a “key and increasing challenge” in TNE

A new report highlights the ongoing difficulties around securing academic freedom and freedom of speech in overseas settings – and raises questions about regulation

Michael Salmon is News Editor at Wonkhe

The British Council and Universities UK International’s latest publication on developing responsible transnational education (TNE) partnerships sets out risk management approaches and various “red lines” that institutions ought to be thinking about when establishing joint or collaborative higher education provision in other countries.

This (excellent) report is based on interviews with staff involved in and responsible for transnational education, and covers various issues that need special attention. The question of collaboration over sensitive research areas is clearly a pressing one at the moment, and it’s noted that geopolitical tensions have the ability to disrupt partnerships in unpredictable ways, “often at little notice.”

And there’s a wider theme about student protection, and what happens when the “red lines” (be these reputational, financial, or operational) get crossed. One interviewee suggests that having student protection plans in place is a high priority – but elsewhere we hear that a standard “timeframe for exit” in contracts would be twelve months, and options around closure could involve handing the partnership over to another UK provider or a third party.

One other key risk that the report identifies as needing to be managed, from the outset and throughout a partnership, is free speech and academic freedom. From those involved in such partnerships, we learn that:

A key and increasing challenge […] was the extent to which they could guarantee academic freedom and freedom of speech for students when operating in certain contexts or in partnership with certain actors.

And that:

Challenges had occurred in the delivery of TNE provision to locations where the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech are not upheld or equally understood to the UK, as well as where, in some cases, actors had deliberately sought to interfere with such freedoms.

The report recommends contractual agreements confirming both universities’ commitment to academic freedom and freedom of speech (to the extent that these things can be contractually managed) as well as clear whistleblowing policies once the partnership is up and running. Academic freedom and freedom of speech are also noted as potential grounds for disengaging or winding down a partnership, with the question raised of how this would affect other UK universities operating in the same location.

For universities in England, we don’t yet have full confirmation that the Office for Students’ new complaints scheme will apply to students studying on programmes run overseas, though it looks that way from the draft version currently out for feedback. Universities UK’s consultation response asked for clarification on whether students overseas would be able to complain, and strongly suggested that the regulator stipulates it will “not consider complaints which concern the domestic legislation of other countries.”

GuildHE’s response said much the same thing: “we do not believe it appropriate that the OfS – as an English regulator – try to interpret the laws of another country for which they are not expert.” University Alliance said that “there is a very strong argument that the scheme should only apply to students studying in the UK.”

Trying to apply OfS’ broad brush draft guidance to students on TNE programmes is tricky, but you get the impression that there are all kinds of potential pitfalls in store. Example 3, in which international students are on scholarships which require them to “accept the basic principles of the ruling party of country B”, is going to be exacerbated the moment we are talking about students actually enrolled on two different degrees, as in the case of much TNE provision. Example 4, which clearly has Confucius Institutes in mind, raises the spectre of an “ideological test as a condition of appointment and of ongoing employment” for staff hired and employed by a partner institution. Again, this hasn’t been framed with transnational education in mind – but would surely be highly applicable.

At the end of the day, it has always looked highly questionable to imagine – in certain countries where partnerships are popular – that students on most or many TNE programmes enjoy the level of freedom of speech and academic freedom required by UK regulatory standards. In the case of English institutions, there are about to be a whole new host of regulatory responsibilities and means of achieving redress.

That said, the application of the new condition of registration on harassment and sexual misconduct, when it finally emerges, is likely going to cause some problems as well. The question remains to what extent OfS is actually equipped to conduct investigations and enable students to make complaints in overseas settings – it’s easy enough to make a sweeping application of powers, but seems much harder to see how these new responsibilities will actually come into effect in the spirit they are intended to.

Leave a Reply