Ignatieff: overseas students ‘under surveillance’ by home regimes

THE event hears that ‘policing’ of social media posts from students studying abroad is stifling classroom debate

May 28, 2021
Guardian Officer at Tiananmen Place, China illustrating surveillance of international students
Source: iStock

International students from countries including China are under a “degree of surveillance” from their home security services while they are abroad and it is having a “chilling effect” on their ability to talk freely on some topics in class, a sector leader has warned.

Michael Ignatieff, president of the Central European University (CEU), said universities needed to be aware that security services from some regimes were constantly “policing the internet to watch the social media traffic” of students while they were studying abroad.

He gave as an example the case of a CEU student who was being detained in Egypt in relation to Facebook posts he was alleged to have made while studying in Europe.

“If you widen this out, every Chinese student studying in a European or North American institution is potentially under some degree of surveillance for [their] host government, ditto possibly with the Russians, possibly with the Turks…and this has a chilling effect on academic exchange and discussion of these countries when it involves these nationals in our classrooms,” Professor Ignatieff told the THE Europe Universities Summit.

“We stand with our international students, we want to welcome them to our campus, they enrich our lives enormously, but they are being watched and that is bad for us and it’s bad for them.” 

Specifically on China, the former leader of the Liberal Party in his native Canada stressed that he did not want to be labelled a Sinophobe or as “wanting to start some cold war with China”. He has previously criticised plans to allow China’s Fudan University to set up a campus in Budapest, the CEU’s former base before it was forced by Hungary’s authoritarian government to move to Vienna.

“We need as much interaction with Chinese academic and cultural life as we possibly can,” he added. “But we need to be very, very aware that when our Chinese students come to us, that they are under degrees of surveillance and constraint [and] that ought to be of concern.”

The session, entitled “Are academic freedom and institutional autonomy in jeopardy?”, also heard views on so-called “cancel culture” and the decolonisation of the curriculum, with Professor Ignatieff saying it was important that all views could be heard.

But he added that “universities have never been particularly free places” in terms of speech, and going back to his undergraduate days he “felt the tremendous pressure of tyrannous intellectual fashions”.

“And this brings us back to what this is about: can we create environments where people can actually damn well think for themselves and come to their own conclusions about what is real and what is not?”

However, Professor Ignatieff also said developments in countries such as England, where governments were looking at bringing in laws to govern campus free speech, were troubling.

Another panellist, Janika Spannagel, a research fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, said in her view such developments were worse than any concerns about whether cancel culture was an issue.

“Maybe one can even argue that there is an exaggerated anxiety that often accompanies these debates that can pose a bigger threat to free speech and university autonomy than the alleged cancellations themselves,” she said.

“It is precisely part of a university’s autonomy to decide who is given its platform. When people…start proposing laws…to curb universities’ and students’ ability to make these decisions on guest speakers and other issues, then this is a worrisome development.”

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Tell us something we didn't know. Not only 'remote' monitoring but embedded party members in the student cohort, Confucius institute and University staff. The latter also target Chinese origin Academic's who step out of line in anyway.

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