Plan for ‘catastrophic’ break with China, new UUK head urges

Vivienne Stern tells Australian conference that universities should make contingency preparations for collapse in relations

July 7, 2022
Vivienne Stern
Vivienne Stern

British and Australian universities must “scenario-plan” for a “catastrophe” in relations with China, but they must also push back against a mindset that resists international engagement, according to the incoming chief executive of Universities UK.

Vivienne Stern told the Universities Australia conference that the collapse of research and education ties with Russia had offered a foretaste of what could happen with China. “The difference would be an order of magnitude greater; it would be catastrophic,” she said.

“We have to look that issue in the face. We hope to God it will not happen, but it could. We would be failing ourselves if we didn’t consider the particular challenges posed by the potential deterioration in the relationship with China.”

Ms Stern’s comments followed the publication of a report by Lord Johnson of Marylebone, the former universities minister in the Westminster government, that urged universities to diversify their academic partnerships in the face of the risk that closer ties between Moscow and Beijing could force Western universities to cut their research ties with China.

And they come after an unprecedented joint address by the heads of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and the British domestic intelligence agency MI5 to warn about intellectual property theft by China.

In a briefing to a London audience that included university and business leaders, the two directors said the Chinese government posed the biggest long-term threat to both countries’ national and economic security. The Chinese government is “set on stealing your technology”, FBI boss Christopher Wray said.

MI5 chief Ken McCallum said his agency’s workload involving the Chinese Communist Party had increased sevenfold since 2018 and was continuing to rise. “This might feel abstract, but it’s real and it’s pressing. We need to talk about it. We need to act.”

Ms Stern acknowledged the complexity of Western universities’ dealings with China, but said a “simplistic view” that international collaboration was “dangerous and we shouldn’t do it” was “already having a chilling effect on our campuses”.

Addressing the conference, she said the collapse of relations with Moscow had deprived the world of globally beneficial research into issues such as carbon storage in Russian peat bogs. The threat of “deglobalisation” was also becoming a “sharper and sharper question” for universities because of their dependence on China as a source of international student fees.

“But…it’s not going to be up to us, in the end. We should just be thinking through the consequences, not of whether this is desirable or undesirable, but what would happen if we didn’t have any choice but to disentangle? For the UK, that would be an absolute disaster, so…we’d better plan for it,” she said.

Australian conflict resolution specialist Melissa Conley Tyler said universities must highlight the positives of international engagement “and not let it be framed entirely as vulnerabilities and weaknesses”.

“We have to push back,” said Ms Conley Tyler, an honorary fellow with the University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute. “We have to have safeguards in place, no question. But we’re also trying to build a world where there’s international engagement rather than fear.”

International development expert Tess Newton Cain said engagement with the Pacific Islands had become framed by the “but China” issue.

“There’s a real risk that an over-focus on securitisation will undermine the more important aspects of how Australia has built relationships with the region,” said Dr Newton Cain, a former University of the South Pacific academic who leads the Pacific Hub at Griffith University’s Asia Institute.

“Not only is that intellectually lazy, it’s strategically inept. There’s very little appetite in Pacific Island communities for people that come to them and only want to talk about China.”

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