Call to rethink China branch campuses over academic freedom risks

Experts say long-running joint ventures should be seen as a ‘litmus test’

August 2, 2018
Xi Jinping face plates
Source: iStock

Western universities have been told to rethink their collaborations in China in the wake of the latest attacks on academic freedom in the country.

In one of the most recent cases, an academic was removed from the management board of the University of Nottingham’s Ningbo campus for criticising the ruling Communist Party’s policies on freedom of thought.

Stephen Morgan had been an associate provost since 2016, but was removed from the senior management team at the end of last month. Times Higher Education understands that his standing down was a condition imposed on the university for renewal of his contract as an academic.

The Financial Times said that the Communist Party objected to the renewal of his contract as associate provost after Professor Morgan wrote an online essay criticising the move to enshrine the “Thought of [Chinese president] Xi Jinping” in the constitution of the Communist Party.

Professor Morgan told THE that “periodic renewal of the management board occurs most years” and “all Sino-foreign universities need to work within the constraints of the governing laws, regulations and conventions of China”.

The case follows earlier reports that the Chinese education ministry would require branch campuses to grant vice-chancellor status and a seat on the board of trustees to party secretaries.

Chris Hughes, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, said that “the worsening of the political situation in China is now making the risks clearer for anybody who works there”.

“Those risks were not built into the overly optimistic business plans of university administrators whose main interest in China is to boost revenues by gaining access to the student market,” he said.

“Because Nottingham was the first UK university to open a campus in China, and therefore the most experienced, it should be seen as a litmus test for other universities who want to follow in its footsteps.”

However, while Western academics and even governments have “become much more aware” of these risks, Professor Hughes said that he was “not at all optimistic that the managers of universities will take this on board because the temptation of the China student market outweighs any concerns over protecting the core mission of universities, which ultimately depends on upholding key principles of freedom of thought and expression”.

Last month, a US academic who lost his post at Peking University HSBC Business School in Shenzhen cited concerns over his personal safety as he said he was leaving China. Christopher Balding, a vocal critic of the Chinese government and its human rights record, said he believed that the reason why his contract was not renewed was different to the “official” reason he was given.

Kevin Carrico, lecturer in Chinese studies at Macquarie University, said that the “political situation in China today, with a ruler for life and the construction of concentration camps for Uyghurs” is “already enough of a reason for international universities to put a pause to further collaboration projects”.

“If this is not yet enough, I think [Professor] Morgan's case highlights the real risks of this type of collaboration, which always promises ‘academic freedom’ but never in fact realises it,” he added.

A spokeswoman at the University of Nottingham said: “We are making a number of changes to our management board at UNNC, as we do every year when contracts expire or we recruit new talent. 

“Professor Morgan’s two-year contract as associate provost conclude[d] at the end of July and we are pleased to have retained him at UNNC as executive director for Nottingham Healthcare China.”

Speaking about transnational education at the THE Teaching Excellence Summit last month, Shearer West, Nottingham’s vice-chancellor, said that “there is absolutely no way as a UK university that we would do anything but feel academic freedom is our highest priority”.

“Our staff on campus, they teach and they research and they have their views and they publish their views. And that is what we agree and I think we would not want to demur…in any way,” she said.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Call to rethink China branch campuses over academic freedom threats

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