Select Committee on Trade and Industry Minutes of Evidence


Response from Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the UK on the consultation on the DTI Strategic Export Controls White Paper


  1.  CVCP acknowledges the need for effective controls on weapons development and proliferation. However, the indiscriminate extension of powers to cover "intangible exports", especially in paragraphs 3.1 and 3.2 of the white paper, poses an unacceptable threat to the operation and standing of UK higher education.

  2.  CVCP is concerned that the white paper strays beyond its intended remit and, if taken as the basis for legislation, will severely damage the international research capability of UK higher education and undermine the achievements of universities in attracting international students to the UK. The white paper's proposals have the capacity to do real damage to the integrity of UK higher education.

  3.  The proposals will also inhibit trade, particularly in those areas of "dual-use" technologies where the UK has a substantial share of the world market. They will discourage inward investment, since companies will resist investment in R&D if there is any prospect that the free flow of discoveries to subsidiaries in other countries will be impeded.


  4.  The White Paper fails to appreciate the character of advances in communications technology and the part they play in the way university teaching and research is carried out. It is simply impractical to police the continuous stream of information and ideas that characterises the global communications system in the way envisaged in the white paper. Moreover, even if possible, controls over the transfer of information by electronic means would involve draconian and burdensome surveillance systems inimical to academic and indeed democratic principles.

  5.  The wording of the sections 3.1 and 3.2 is wide-ranging and imprecise. CVCP is concerned that almost everything that goes on in universities could fall under the heading of "intangible exports". Many of the means for chemical agents, for example, are available in the open literature of any university library. Journals and research findings are increasingly disseminated electronically. Overseas students figure prominently in postgraduate programmes. The proposed control of "intangible exports" would catch our universities' everyday practice.

  6.  The white paper fails to distinguish between weapons technology and the basic scientific work that underpins it. Members of the international science community need to be able to exchange ideas freely by any means, including the internet, and members of universities who are not UK citizens should be able to collaborate freely with their British colleagues and teachers.

  7.  CVCP has no objection to the control of weapons of mass destruction, but the white paper addresses topics that have nothing to do with such weapons, and it fails to acknowledge that almost any advanced technology has a potential weapons application. In this respect the white paper fails to meet a central conclusion of the Scott Inquiry, namely that future export controls must meet precise objectives that are fully and openly stated.


  8.  The wording of section 3.2 is ambiguous and contrary to the tradition of academic freedom. Under these proposals, export licences would it seems have to be obtained for degree courses taught to international students and every transfer of routine scientific research by e-mail or the web.

  9.  Section 3.1.4 is drafted so loosely that it places an unacceptable barrier in the path of routine academic procedure in relation to the transfer of knowledge. The dissemination in good faith of research findings as part of standard academic practice is not explicitly exempted from this clause. While it is possible that an end-user may abuse such findings and apply them to the creation of weaponry, it is entirely inappropriate for government to assume a legislative capacity that would enable it to control research and indeed basic courses in science. Any decision by the executive to restrict courses which a university believes to have no strategic or military significance should be open to challenge in an independent forum, preferably through the judicial system.

  10.  Under the enforcement of such imprecise provisions as contained in 3.1 and 3.2:

    —  the international publication or transfer of academic research in any medium could be deemed an offence;

    —  universities would have to acquire export licences for every research project or degree course that involved the participation of international students either directly or through distance learning programmes, a bureaucratic imposition that would be administratively and financially untenable. As a result UK higher education would become insular and deprived of the financial rewards of providing internationally attractive study/research programmes;

    —  international academic collaboration in many disciplines would be severely impaired, and bona fide research by individuals or consortia would be subject to the additional red tape of obtaining regulatory licences for basic academic work;

    —  the government would be given the arbitrary power to determine the relevance or otherwise of the curriculum of university science courses (eg on what topics could be covered if there were non-UK citizens in the class), an interference with control of their own affairs power inconsistent with academic freedom and university autonomy;

    —  the recruitment of international students would be severely affected, although the value of such recruitment to the UK economy is great, as is the contribution of overseas students to research carried out in UK universities.

  11.  CVCP believes that any export controls must meet precise and discernible objectives. The current wording of sections 3.1 and 3.2 (either intentionally or through inappropriate phraseology) would inhibit the exercise of academic freedom, the delivery of teaching and the conduct of research.


  12.  CVCP urges the DTI to give further consideration to the proposals and their adverse impact on everyday academic activity. We recommend that:

    —  any extension of control beyond technologies tenuously or directly relating to the construction of weapons of mass destruction should include specific exclusions;

    —  sections 3.1 and 3.2 should be redrafted to ensure that routine academic practice is explicitly exempted and the scope of legislation is limited to areas of specific concern;

    —  a distinction is drawn between actions knowingly taken and those which may inadvertently breach it;

    —  any new offence should allow a defence that the export in question was of material already in the public domain;

    —  consideration is given to the use of controls via contractual terms between research sponsor and contractor (as is currently the case with defence technology funded by institutions such as DERA).


  13.  CVCP would be prepared to arrange a meeting with DTI officials and give advice on the redrafting of the relevant sections of the white paper. Such support would aim at striking an appropriate balance between the Government's security concerns and the need to recognise the importance of academic freedom and the international character of university teaching and research.

19 October 1998

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