December 8, 2023

Universities UK chief executive Vivienne Stern said during a meeting on the involvement of UK universities in autocracies, which focused heavily on China, that member universities followed the organisation’s guidelines on partnering with institutions in autocratic countries.

Universities have a moral and legal responsibility to protect academic freedom, Stern said.

“Academic freedom, ethical considerations, free speech considerations—they go through these guidelines and every case study we’ve collected along the way. That is enacted with institutions,” Stern said.

Committee members Fiona Quimbre of RAND Europe and John Heathershaw of the University of Exeter asked Stern whether financial and academic risks were adequately addressed.

“I want to refute the suggestion that universities prioritize financial considerations and considerations of academic freedom. I don’t think that’s right,” Stern responded.

“I would also like to disprove the assumption that universities look the other way when entering into partnerships.

“In my previous role [as head of UUKi] I’ve spent a lot of time talking to institutions about how they’ve gone about establishing educational partnerships in autocratic states where it’s clear that academic freedom and freedom of speech are not protected—and the most common approach… first, you have to be clear-eyed.

“What I’ve seen when these partnerships have formed is that you have to be prepared to walk away,” Stern told the committee.

Quimbre, who wrote a report for the State Department on the challenges and opportunities of working with China, said it was an examination of the balance between the “tremendous benefit” versus the potential risk of working with “certain actors.”

“You must be ready to leave”

“Awareness of the risk itself is pretty narrow,” Quimbre said. She told the committee that people usually think of risks such as students stealing information from labs, but that the problem is actually much wider.

“China’s approach to technology for the university is not just about IP theft and cyber hacks, but about creating those ties and contacts, building them over the years and being able to direct research into areas of interest,” she said.

Quimbre described the case at Imperial College London, where the institution received £6m from the China Aeronautics and Space Administration before being criticized for supporting Chinese military manufacturing, as the “tip of the iceberg”.

“These kinds of links can be traced … what we don’t currently have information about are talent programs, startup competitions, donations and funds.

“These vectors and influencers in our universities that we don’t talk about, and it’s very important to understand that these current agents of future research collaboration with countries like China also enable potential technology transfer,” she said, adding that why the challenge ” so difficult and complex’.

Heathershaw, professor of international relations at the University of Exeter’s College of Social Sciences and International Studies, further defending the university’s integrity, insisted that it was a “basic condition” for universities to ensure academic freedom.

“It’s what sets our universities apart from many parts of the world where academic freedom is not in place and in some partnerships universities can work together in a kind of arbitrary naivety, then they have that freedom and they work for the interests of sometimes quite nasty governments in their home countries.

He further told the committee that any “serious breach of their charters”, enshrined in academic freedom, would be “a dereliction of duty”.

“What we don’t currently have information about are talent programs, startup competitions, donations and funds”

Stern reminded the committee that it is not just the UUK guidelines that institutions can support, referring to the Research Corporation Advisory Team and the Higher Education Export Control Association.

Quimbre agreed that greater collaboration between government and academia would be beneficial for risk management.

Heathershaw said a 2020 survey of Russell Group institutions found that of the 17 that answered questions, only seven had independent GIS committees and published criteria for judging gifts and donations.

“There are weaknesses and things can get better, but those institutions just don’t work the way they should, or don’t have the powers they should in some cases,” he admitted.

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