The Meddling of Foreign Governments in UK Universities

Universities must act again foreign efforts to curb academic freedom on UK campuses

British intelligence services are reportedly concerned about efforts to muzzle protest at universities by China, Russia and other autocracies. A report, published by the foreign affairs select committee, states that there is ‘alarming evidence’ of Chinese governmental interference on UK campuses. It describes co-ordinated attempts by the Chinese government to influence research and prevent discussion of certain sensitive topics, such as the plight of Uighur Muslims, Tiananmen Square and Tibet. Furthermore, it also mentions the pressure being put on Chinese students to undermine pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. In Sheffield, Leeds, Birmingham and London, Chinese students have claimed that they have been harassed and intimidated by pro-Beijing demonstrators.

The UK is one of the most popular overseas destinations for Chinese students; according to The Guardian, there are approximately 100,000 students from China in the UK. Multiple British universities, including Liverpool and Nottingham, have set up partnerships or other close relationships with Chinese colleges. Universities often have a strong incentive to establish overseas partnerships for two main reasons: to secure funding and enhance collaboration on research projects. They receive £1.39bn in research funding from overseas in addition to tuition fee income from overseas students; as a result of this, UK universities risk becoming extremely vulnerable to pressure from the Chinese government. There is no effective check on whether such financial impact could become academic influence. Take for example the London School of Economics, which relies heavily on foreign students. It has faced down demands from Chinese students to alter a huge globe sculpture in its forecourt, which shows Taiwan as separate from China. Additionally, after two academics claimed that it would compromise the school’s values, it halted advanced discussions with a vocal supporter of Beijing who wanted to fund a wide-ranging China programme. 

However, the UK government and Higher Education sector seem reluctant to acknowledge these problems. Even the Australian government has set up a task force to protect universities from foreign influence. Perhaps the UK government is more concerned with not upsetting any potential partner with whom it will be forced to strike trade deals with after Brexit. 

The UK is a powerful source of international research collaboration, precisely because many top academics respect its freedom and independence of thought. Universities must not jeopardise that reputation, because it is these qualities that make UK campuses such thriving, flourishing communities. As Beijing tries to extend its influence around the world, its efforts to control and censor speech seem to become gradually internationalised, reaching into foreign corporations, the international media and the statements and policies of foreign governments. To preserve freedom of expression and debate, universities must push back and prioritise the maintenance of free, open environments.

Tanya V