Academics may have to ask the government's permission before publishing work or appointing foreign research students under the Export Control Bill, now in its final stages of passage through the House of Lords.
The bill revises the 1939 Export Control Act, which sets out which exports need a licence. It will extend the act from physical items to "intangibles" such as software and emails containing ideas. Controls could also be applied to lectures, slides and research projects. It was drafted to regulate arms trading following the arms-to-Iraq inquiries.
Universities UK warned that the bill would jeopardise international collaborations and curtail a basic academic freedom to publish new research. It has lobbied in the House of Lords for an amendment that would safeguard bona fide academic activity in primary legislation, saying a widely drafted bill would leave the opportunity for stringent controls on academic freedom in the future.
The government denied that academic freedom would be compromised, dismissing concerns that universities would have to license foreign research students as "ridiculous". It said that academic freedom would be guaranteed through secondary legislation, insisting on flexibility in the underlying principles.
Nicholas Bohm, trustee for the Foundation of Information Policy Research, drafted the amendment, which would restrict government controls to cases of known security risk.
"The government says it doesn't intend to control the publication of research," he said. "It should put its good intentions into hard words in the act."
* Universities may lose their right to exploit their own intellectual property under proposed European Commission legislation.
The commission wants to make public-sector generated information generally accessible at cost price to commercial and non-commercial users to remove trade barriers.
The consultation says the measures would "restrict the exercise of intellectual property rights of public-sector bodies by, for example, doing away with exclusive licensing arrangements for the re-use of information".
UUK said the proposal could have serious implications for higher education and that it would be responding to the consultation.