Security vetting plan for researchers of sensitive technologies

MI5 director general warns vice-chancellors that hostile states are targeting UK universities

四月 26, 2024
Heavy security presence in front of the Prime Minister's Office at 10 Downing Street
Source: iStock/BrasilNut1

Academics with access to sensitive research in UK universities could be required to undergo security vetting, ministers have said.

The proposal is one of several set to be consulted on after the director general of MI5 warned vice-chancellors that hostile states were targeting sensitive research being conducted in British higher education institutions “to deliver their own authoritarian, military and commercial priorities”.

Twenty-four vice-chancellors, including the heads of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and Imperial College London, attended the briefing with MI5’s Ken McCallum and Felicity Oswald, interim chief executive of the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC).

It was convened after Oliver Dowden, the deputy prime minister, said that foreign powers’ access to sensitive research being conducted in UK universities could “become a chink in our armoury” in an era of heightened geopolitical tension, and warned that institutions’ reliance on overseas funding raised the risk that they could be “influenced, exploited or even coerced”.

At the briefing, Mr Dowden said he planned to launch this summer a consultation on measures to protect universities from national security threats, “focused on a small proportion of academic work, with a particular focus on research with potential dual uses in civilian and military life”. The consultation “will also consider measures to prevent institutions becoming dependent on foreign investment”, the Cabinet Office said.

Among the measures under consideration are exploring the feasibility of extending security vetting to key personnel, and funding options to develop research security capability within universities.

Other measures could include developing a new professional standard for research security practitioners, handing greater responsibility to the government’s existing Research Collaboration Advice Team (RCAT), and “strengthened reporting processes” to improve transparency over foreign funding.

Mr Dowden said the proposals were “not about erecting fences”. “This is about balancing evolving threats and protecting the integrity and security of our great institutions,” he said.

Separately, the NCSC and the National Protective Security Agency have launched a Trusted Research Evaluation Framework to help universities assess the risk attached to international research collaborations.

Vivienne Stern, the chief executive of Universities UK, said vice-chancellors “welcome the government’s approach to working hand in hand with us to get the mechanisms right”, to allow institutions “to balance the need to remain open to collaboration with the need to protect national and university interests”.

Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, said he would welcome extra support for RCAT.

“Extending security clearance to key university personnel would be another step forward, and extra resources to boost capabilities through a research security fund or alternative arrangements would help universities understand and respond at pace to new and emerging threats,” he added.

In another development, MPs on the House of Commons Education Committee said they would launch an inquiry into some UK universities’ reliance on international tuition fees.

Robin Walker, the panel’s chair, said the inquiry would “explore concerns that some universities have become too reliant on students from abroad to shore up their balance sheets, and to what extent this is sustainable”.



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