The head of a UK university with a major research link to Huawei has suggested that an institutional ban on working with the Chinese technology giant would run counter to academic freedom, adding that universities should “not be dictated” to by geopolitics.
Max Lu, the Chinese-Australian vice-chancellor of the University of Surrey, told Times Higher Education that it was not the place of universities to stop working with the company “unless there is a national policy” demanding such a move.
Huawei has funded a £5 million project at Surrey to develop the 5G mobile communications network.
“The [UK] government has not announced any policy that would rule out Huawei, and there is no pressure from government on universities saying you cannot work with Huawei,” he said.
“If there is a large body of evidence of activities of espionage or compromising national security, the government will make a decision.”
Several leading research universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Oxford, have said they will refuse to accept new research funding from the company amid concern in some quarters that its products could be used by the Chinese government to conduct espionage or disrupt communications.
However, Professor Lu said that “any equipment from any supplier carries software risks” and the risks for Surrey in working with Huawei were very low because the partnership was centred on basic research.
He added that “academic freedom applies both ways”, arguing that if universities want to maintain their neutrality they “should not be affected or dictated [to] by geopolitics, which in its very nature is very transient”.
“The mission of universities is to change society, change lives and make the world a better place. If you’re going to change your research agenda according to geopolitics, you will not be able to make a sustained contribution to society, and you will become an instrument of politics,” he said.
“We should transcend national politics or international geopolitics. We should transcend all the other influences.”
Professor Lu spoke to THE at the THE Innovation and Impact Summit earlier this month.
The vice-chancellor, who serves on the board of UK Research and Innovation, also offered a relatively optimistic view of Brexit compared with many of his peers, claiming that “the Brexit effect on international education is very temporary and will not have a long-lasting impact”.
Even if students from the European Union will have to pay much higher tuition fees to study in the UK, “universities will still find a way to take and welcome EU students, and EU students will find a way to finance their study. They will still come because of the strength of the sector,” he said.
Regarding research, he added that collaboration between UK and European researchers was “more valuable than the money” from the EU.
“If we [leave the EU], then the collaboration and funding mechanisms will probably be in a different shape and form, but they will continue. There will be some mechanism set up to continue the collaboration post-Brexit,” he said.