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China links pose a threat to academic freedom in Britain

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The writer is Conservative MP for Tonbridge and Malling and chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee

Cardiff University published a job advertisement last month with an unusual requirement: prospective applicants “must have native or near-native fluency in Mandarin”. Perhaps not so unusual in a language school, but this was for the position of lecturer in music composition.

Britain’s universities have changed. Over the past decade, our higher education system has become increasingly reliant on China for a steady stream of students, research partnerships and funding.

In 2019-20, there were nearly 142,000 students from China enrolled at UK universities. Chinese state media claims that the UK has now overtaken the US as the most desirable destination for Chinese students.

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Is that a problem? Overseas students and international co-operation have an important role to play in a healthy higher education system. But there is reasonable cause for concern where the relationship tips into one of over-reliance.

If the number of Chinese students willing to study in the UK were to substantially decrease, as the result of geopolitical tensions, for instance, some of our universities could be left in dire straits. Nine British universities collect more than a fifth of their fee income from Chinese-domiciled students. It is no surprise that these universities seem desperate to prove their Beijing-friendly credentials.

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As we saw when the British academic Jo Smith Finley had sanctions placed on her by China, higher education is seen by Beijing as fair game for bringing loud-mouthed democracies into line. Parliament has been told of Chinese officials confiscating papers that mention Taiwan, of pro-vice-chancellors standing down speakers under pressure from the Chinese embassy and of academics being asked to refrain from making political comments about China.

All of this can have a genuine chilling effect on academic freedom. When the pandemic struck, British universities set up a new online teaching solution to deliver courses to students stuck in China. A group of academics warned that the service, routed through Alibaba Cloud servers in China, was a potential vehicle for monitoring and censorship.

There are also real questions over partnerships with China’s military. In 2017, the UK was second only to the US for papers co-authored with People’s Liberation Army scientists. Perhaps the high point of collaboration was when the University of Cambridge signed a memorandum of understanding with China’s National University of Defence Technology, its premier military university.

Not all universities are culpable, but the overall effect is a systemic failure to uphold liberal values. There is one obvious first step to fixing the problem: radically improving transparency. All sponsorship by China-linked firms and academic partnerships with Chinese institutions should have to be reported to the Department for Education to create what the former higher education minister Jo Johnson calls a “Domesday Book” of UK-China collaborations.

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Universities also need somewhere to turn for better advice. The government should ensure that its new Research Collaboration Advice Team is a well-resourced body that acts as a trusted source of advice about what kinds of partnerships may raise human rights or economic security concerns.

Alongside this, the government must work with the sector to create diversified revenue models that reduce financial dependence on overseas students from one country.

Through the past decade of internationalisation, universities have become foreign policy actors in their own right. They make active choices about who to partner with, and where to focus international recruitment. This cannot come at the cost of the values and academic freedom of open societies.

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