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How can British education be made more resilient to foreign interference?

Certain levels of foreign influence in the United Kingdom – an open society and liberal democracy – are normal, but foreign interference, or influence which becomes interference as it adopts characteristics which are overtly ‘covert, coercive and corrupting’, must be countered. Recent revelations that British academics undertaking sensitive research will be vetted more closely for links to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is evidence that His Majesty’s (HM) Government is working towards making British universities more resilient to foreign interference. How can they, and the universities themselves, do this without undermining research excellence or institutional autonomy? The Council on Geostrategy asked eight experts in this week’s Big Ask. Although an approach by HM Government solely focussing on the PRC would be problematic as it may downplay threats coming from other countries such as Russia and Iran, this Big Ask will adopt a PRC-focus due to the recent revelations, and the fact that the highest number of international students in the UK come from the PRC (151,690 as of November 2021/22).

Andrew Chubb, Lancaster University

We often think of issues of PRC interference as arising from uniquely Chinese circumstances, but they are just as often manifestations of broader trends of increasing authoritarianism globally, and the emergence of social media and powerful digital surveillance technologies. 

Take academic freedom: the PRC has the motivation and capability to monitor and suppress opposition and criticism abroad, including from students and faculty overseas. In some cases financial interests and cooperative relationships have led British institutions to become accessories to such interference. This results in constraints on the exercise of what should be normal academic freedoms to teach, research, debate, and critique. Yet the PRC’s targets – often Mainland Chinese, Hong Kongers and Uyghurs – are by no means alone as they face such challenges; Egyptian, Saudi, Kazakhstani and even Indian students and faculty have faced similar attempts to interfere with the exercise of academic freedom, often via coercive means. 

Authoritarian actors’ attempts to suppress dissent should rightly be exposed whenever they come to light, and already a wide array of techniques have been documented, from the monitoring of student groups and pressuring targets’ families, to digital surveillance, harassment, threats of visa denial, extraterritorial laws and exemplary arrests upon return. But one common denominator is the lack of adequate institutional support structures within British universities to help staff and students navigate the challenges of such interference. This is particularly vital where the institution has established cooperative relationships with authoritarian actors, whether through donations, partnerships or market dependency. The Model Code of Conduct for the protection of academic freedom in internationalised British higher education gives universities an array of specific best practices. These include providing clear contact points through which targets can raise academic freedom concerns, annual reporting to staff and students on academic freedom challenges, and explicit consideration of academic freedom in risk assessment processes for international partnerships.

Robert Clark, CuriaUK

Given the UK’s envious spot at the height of global universities rankings, and with a rich history of research and innovation, it is little wonder that British academia is seen as the soft underbelly for authoritarian regimes to exploit sensitive and often dual-use technologies for potential military application. 

Oliver Dowden, the Deputy Prime Minister, recently addressed these threats to the UK’s national security, announcing increased measures including the vetting of academics with access to sensitive research, and beefing up consultation between universities and the security services when universities enter into funding partnerships with foreign actors. 

However, these measures – as welcome as they are – will undoubtedly take time to implement, and with a degree of bureaucracy, are likely to impede well-intentioned academics yet do little to dissuade malign actors. 

One additional and more effective measure which HM Government could implement to ensure increased resiliency to foreign interference include the establishment of an Australian-style University Foreign Interference Taskforce

But more importantly, the unsustainable cap on domestic students’ tuition fees must be lifted. Frozen since 2017, this forces cash-strapped universities to turn to lucrative foreign collaborations, including with the PRC, who are only too happy to fund highly sensitive research at British universities which have military applications. Incredibly this has recently included hypersonic missile technology. That is simply not in Britain’s national interest. 

By lifting the cap on long-frozen tuition fees, universities will also be able to unburden themselves from a growing dependency on overseas students –  whose fees remained uncapped – as many universities are becoming strategically reliant on Chinese students, funding, and research collaboration. This is strategically incoherent, and HM Government must make substantive changes to ensure greater resiliency.

Sam Dunning, UK-China Transparency

British universities have enabled the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to institutionalise its presence on campus. This has had a chilling effect on the academic freedom of university members with ties to the PRC, especially Chinese citizens. If they ignore the evidence, universities will find themselves neglecting the rights and safety of their members – thereby exposing themselves to serious legal, ethical, reputational, and regulatory risk.

Consider the Chinese Student and Scholars Associations (CSSAs), student societies which admit they are ‘under the direction’ of the Chinese embassy. The leaders of these groups undergo political training by Chinese diplomats who urge them to study ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ and contribute to CCP campaigns. British universities, undeterred, have promoted CSSAs, actively encouraged Chinese students to join them, and used CSSAs to market to new students in the PRC. Student unions, which have authority over CSSAs, have shown little interest in this issue.

Then there are the China Scholarship Council and Confucius Institute programmes. According to Chinese government documents translated by UK-China Transparency, those who come from the PRC as part of these two programmes are subject to political vetting and surveillance and obliged to obey diplomats. Because of our work, England’s universities regulator has suggested that these schemes may breach new free speech rules which come into force in August.

Then there are CCP members on campus. All members have taken an oath to ‘uphold the Party’s programme’ – a programme which demonstrably includes the use of members and informers to suppress speech and undermine and intimidate transgressors. 

This is plainly not just a matter of philosophical belief. Given how CCP rule is enforced in the PRC, membership has legal standing and is more akin to a contractual relationship. A conversation needs to happen about what it means for CCP members to hold positions at our universities.

Elizabeth Lindley, Council on Geostrategy

To safeguard British academic institutions against foreign interference, it is crucial we understand the exact nature of the threat. The CCP seeks to leverage cutting-edge technologies in its intelligence and social governance apparatus and rapidly expanding military forces, exert control over Chinese students abroad, stifle criticism of its policies, and enmesh dependencies to strengthen its global position while eroding those of open and free societies such as the UK. This poses a multifaceted risk to national security, and demands a coordinated response across every level of administration in British universities. 

Vice-chancellors should begin by implementing university-wide training sessions on United Front tactics and the wider Chinese espionage apparatus, and issue strong warnings against surveillance and monitoring activities of the type undertaken by CSSAs. Secure and confidential forums should be established for Chinese and Hong Kong students who feel threatened by the Chinese state’s surveillance and intimidation, with robust frameworks to respond to complaints. Such measures will ensure their freedom of expression within British institutions, and protect academic integrity. 

The high concentration of Chinese students in British universities, while it may make sense when measured in crude economic terms, affords the CCP undue opportunity to influence British academia. To counter these risks, universities should diversify their international student population, reducing overreliance on any single foreign group. 

The primary concern lies within science, technology, engineering, and mathematics subjects aligned with the CCP’s strategic objectives, such as the ‘Made in China 2025 policy’, where knowledge gained by Chinese students may well be utilised in advancing the CCP’s military and intelligence capabilities. Perhaps redirecting Chinese students, where possible, to take up humanities disciplines would serve as a potent countermeasure, diluting the concentration of expertise in sensitive areas and broadening their intellectual horizons beyond CCP-sanctioned perspectives. The cultivation of critical thinking and ideological independence may well inoculate against CCP indoctrination.

Charles Parton, Council on Geostrategy

Let us be honest. We are talking about the PRC – and how to keep the financial and academic baby while getting rid of the security and values bathwater. Let us also be clear. There are two types of threat: one to academic freedoms and to the well-being of Chinese students in our universities; and one to our science and technology.

To take the first and less serious. The answer does not include banning Confucius Institutes. Rather, they should be removed from universities, be as transparent as any other business, and be subject to British and not Chinese law – just as Institut Français or the Goethe Institute are. Universities need to diversify their student base, not least because of Chinese demographics and because the ideological bent of the CCP makes it quite possible that it will severely restrict the flow of students to ‘hostile’ countries such as Britain. While members of the CCP should not be banned from UK academic staff, they should declare their membership, on pain of dismissal.

The more important threat is to our science and technology from PhD and postdoctoral students in areas which have dual military-civilian or repression/surveillance use. The Research Collaboration Advisory Team should be strengthened, not just in numbers but in powers. A SAGE style body should be set up, whereby advice, but also permission, is given quickly on the appropriateness of scientific collaboration or collaborators. And it needs teeth. 

Finally, HM Government needs to inculcate a security consciousness similar to that during the days of the Soviet Union. Many academics are not aware of the aims and methods of the CCP, which constitute as big a threat to the UK’s security and values as ever did the Soviet Union. Less visible, it is perhaps even greater. How to do that would require more words than is permitted here.

Benedict Rogers, Hong Kong Watch

Britain’s universities are increasingly vulnerable to interference from authoritarian regimes which threaten freedom of expression and academic freedom on our campuses. 

Just look at the example of a University College London (UCL) associate professor, Michelle Shipworth, who was censored for referencing slavery in the PRC. UCL has 10,000 students from the PRC, making up a quarter of its student population, and she was told that ‘in order to be commercially viable’ courses ‘need to retain a good reputation amongst future Chinese applicants’.

That is just the tip of the iceberg. British universities are now far too dependent on international student fees and foreign research grants. In addition, the PRC’s Confucius Institutes, purportedly Chinese language teaching centres, function as the CCP’s propaganda outlets on British campuses.

The security services have announced they will now vet academics and researchers involved in cutting-edge science in universities. This is a welcome – if belated – step in the right direction. 

Universities should be assisted in diversifying international funding sources and reducing dependency on any one particular market. They should recruit more students from other parts of the world, especially from democracies which do not threaten our national security. 

Greater scrutiny of applicants for particular disciplines – especially in science and technology – is needed, to ensure we are not unwittingly transferring knowledge which may one day be used against us. 

Consultation with the security services over funding and research collaboration with foreign institutions should be required. Students, researchers and institutions linked to the CCP or China’s People’s Liberation Army, for example, should be blocked.

We must make British education more resilient to foreign interference.

Gray Sergeant, Council on Geostrategy

HM Government’s new measures to tackle foreign espionage at British universities appear prudent. Not least because these vetting measures are targeted on cutting edge science, including those with potential military application.

But universities are home to the humanities and social sciences too, subjects less critical to our national security. How should concerns about Chinese attempts to shape the discourse in these disciplines, through funding, partnerships, and students, be addressed?

There are concrete steps which can be taken to mitigate such risks. These include ones designed as much to empower students, including Chinese students, who wish to explore topics Beijing deems sensitive as they are to curb the CCP from spreading its narrative.

Such measures should lean towards the former, and in any case be targeted. The starting point in this debate must be that Britain is an open society, where political debate is pluralistic. As such the risk that illiberal voices may try to influence discussions, including those at academic institutions, has to be tolerated.

Pro-CCP, or simply highly nationalistic, narratives on campus should be interrogated and debated in the same way any other ideas would be.

Meanwhile, better government funding for higher education in the UK (and backbones for senior management) would help deal with attempts to censor discussion criticising aspects of the PRC. This approach would be better than UK universities unilaterally closing themselves off from academic collaboration and people-to-people exchange.

The closing remarks of George Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram’ are, when debating such questions, always worth remembering. At the dawn of the Cold War, the godfather of containment warned: ‘the greatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem of Soviet communism, is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.’

Scott Singer, University of Oxford

HM Government already has talented academic-policy bridgebuilders who educate academics on adversarial activities and risks in universities. Currently, engagement with these government actors is generally limited to those facing the greatest risk. In relation to the PRC, for example, this often means academics whose research does not generally focus on the PRC but are working on a particular piece of research with a clear Chinese angle. Providing short but comprehensive training and written guidance to a broader group of university personnel would be a meaningful and cost-effective lever to ensure real risks are rapidly identified and false alarms treated as such.

Moreover, the UK should invest in improving visa screening for students entering on student visas. The world-class universities the UK possesses should double-down on its long-held commitment to admitting the most talented students regardless of their passport – large-scale restrictions on education access on the basis of nationality threatens the very principle of openness upon which British universities rely. But this commitment can only be fulfilled if visa-vetting authorities increase monitoring of potential espionage and other foreign interference risks within universities. The UK should work with allies and partners to establish best practices here.

Finally, to the extent that it can, the UK should recognise that many of the individuals facing the greatest risks in education are in fact nationals from adversarial countries who seek opportunities in Britain. Increasing faculty understanding of the risks this particular demographic faces will help promote broader resilience in the education ecosystem.

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