Ministers fears universities may be ‘coerced’ via foreign funding

Deputy prime minister to brief vice-chancellors on findings of review

April 18, 2024
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The UK government has been reviewing universities’ reliance on overseas funding amid concerns that they could be “exploited, or even coerced” by hostile states, the deputy prime minister has said.

Oliver Dowden, the deputy prime minister, said he would be convening a round table of vice-chancellors in coming weeks to discuss the findings, as he warned that the higher education sector could “become a chink in our armoury” in an era of heightened geopolitical tension.

He made the announcement in a speech to the Chatham House thinktank in which he indicated that ministers could introduce new controls on international collaboration relating to sensitive research areas.

There have long been concerns about international co-authorship and funding of UK academic research that could be exploited by overseas powers, with the National Security and Investment Act (NSI) 2021 designed to exert greater government control in this area.

Meanwhile, the reliance of cash-strapped universities on international student revenues, particularly from China, has led to fears that this could place limits on free speech on campus – or leave institutions vulnerable to collapse if a foreign government decided to pull the plug.

An amendment to the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023 mandated the English regulator, the Office for Students, to monitor universities’ reliance on foreign funding. It has since warned 23 institutions about their “high levels” of recruitment from China and indicated that institutions should be prepared to close down foreign partnerships if they lead to restrictions on free speech.

In his speech, Mr Dowden said that the UK’s universities were “a jewel in our crown” and the “vast majority” of international research collaboration was “to be welcomed and applauded”.

“We should be proud that much of the cutting-edge development in sensitive technologies is happening at our universities,” he said. “But this also has the potential to become a chink in our armoury.

“This is not about erecting fences around entire institutions or areas of research. However, it is right that we look at who has access to research frontiers in the most sensitive disciplines.”

Mr Dowden continued: “Similarly, we must ensure that some universities’ reliance on foreign funding does not become a dependency by which they can be influenced, exploited or even coerced – or, indeed, find themselves vulnerable in the fallout from heightened geopolitical tensions.

“That’s why the government has been conducting a review into academic security and I will be convening a round table of university vice-chancellors in the coming weeks to discuss our findings and our proposed response.”

Mr Dowden said he would publish updated guidance on the NSI Act, including on how it applied to academia.

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Reader's comments (1)

And yet the same party is happy to accept multi million pound contributions from donors. I'm sure these aren't a "dependency by which they can be influenced, exploited or even coerced".