UK scholars ‘more likely to self-censor’ when teaching Chinese students

Research aims to gather evidence on whether international links with autocratic states pose threat to UK academic freedom

February 23, 2022

Forty per cent of academics specialising in China report self-censoring when teaching students from the nation, according to a survey looking at attitudes within universities on whether academic freedom is at risk from internationalisation.

new paper, published by academics from the universities of Exeter, Oxford and Portsmouth, presents the results of a survey distributed to 25,000 academics working in social sciences and humanities departments in UK universities and completed by 1,500 of them.

With increasing political and media scrutiny over whether international links between British universities and counterparts in autocratic states are putting academic freedom in the UK under threat, the authors sought to gather firmer evidence beyond the “scattered and anecdotal” evidence to date.

“The data suggest that academic freedom is perceived to be under threat by a substantial majority of UK social scientists,” the authors write of the survey results.

Over two-thirds (67 per cent) of respondents said academic freedom was under threat in higher education, with that perception highest among politics and international relations scholars, and lowest in the humanities.

A majority of academics (59 per cent) said they do not feel pressured to collaborate with non-democratic partners in the aftermath of Brexit, although 10 per cent said that they do.

Concerns are most acute among academics focused on specific regions, the survey found.

“The most significant contrast comes in relation to academics who report to be self-censoring when teaching students coming from authoritarian regimes: this value is considerably higher among scholars specialising in China (41 per cent) and Africa (39 per cent) than those who specialise in European states (33 per cent), and all are substantially higher than the average of all respondents (20 per cent),” the paper says.

In another finding relating to China, 28 per cent of respondents said that they would have serious concerns conducting joint research with academics based in universities in Hong Kong, although 38 per cent disagreed “and a large minority answered don’t know”.

Tena Prelec, research fellow in the department of politics and international relations at Oxford, one of the authors, said: “Concern among academics in politics and international relations could be higher because they are more exposed to sensitivities arising when teaching students from and conducting research in autocracies.

“Furthermore, alongside business and law, these departments have often expanded most rapidly for both domestic and international students, perhaps creating an impression among staff that market demand trumps the maintenance of standards and academic freedom.”

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