Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Universities UK


  1.  Universities UK is pleased to submit this memorandum to the Select Committee's inquiry on strategic export controls. We take a keen interest in the issue because higher education is an inherently international activity. UK universities have a strong record in recruiting and teaching students from overseas. Research groups routinely engage in international collaboration to maintain their cutting edge.

  2.  Protection of the international dimension of UK higher education is important for a number of reasons:

    —  the OST's wish for the UK to maintain its international reputation for research;

    —  the Prime Minister's wish to raise the numbers of overseas students;

    —  the Government's proposal to establish an e-university; and

    —  the DTI's aim of making the UK the world's best location for e-commerce.

  3.  In response to the 1998 White Paper on Strategic Controls, CVCP (we changed our name to Universities UK in December 2000) acknowledged the need for effective controls on weapons development and proliferation. However, we expressed concern that the indiscriminate extension of powers to cover intangible exports posed an unacceptable threat to the operation and standing of UK higher education. We argued that the proposed controls would severely damage the international research capability of UK higher education and undermine the ability of universities to attract international students to the UK. We also noted, in common with others, that the proposals could inhibit trade, particularly in those areas of "dual-use" technologies where the UK has a substantial share of the world market, and discourage inward investment by multinational companies with strong R&D interests.

  4.  Universities UK now welcomes, in broad terms, the draft Strategic Export Controls Bill that has been put out to consultation, in particular the commentary accompanying it. These go some way towards meeting the concerns we expressed in 1998 about interference with legitimate academic activities. But we think there is still more to do in order to protect academic freedom, in particular within the Bill itself. Universities UK looks forward to taking part in the consultation process now under way and we are currently consulting our members on the formal response we will make.


  5.  Universities UK supports controls on weapons of mass destruction. But we are concerned that new controls might have the unintended consequence of damaging higher education. This is especially true now as we try to build international recruiting and global research links. Our concerns are, for this reason, limited to the sections of the Bill dealing with these new controls. The proposal in the draft Bill to extend licensing controls to include intangibles could have adverse effects on universities and on the UK research base generally.

  6.  The proposals explained in paragraph 44 of the memorandum accompanying the Bill express the intention to respond to concerns expressed by the academic community. We welcome this flexibility—including, for example, the exclusion of knowledge in the public domain, and the need for "knowledge" rather than "suspicion" on the part of the academics.

  7.  However, this flexibility is not reflected in the drafting of the Bill itself. Universities UK believes that the only way to ensure that academic freedom is protected is to provide for exclusion of the routine academic activities of teaching and research. We believe that the protection of academic freedom should be achieved in plain terms on the face of the Bill. This is justified both by the importance of the principle of academic freedom and by the economic and cultural importance of the UK's academic institutions. Failure to do so would hinder universities' ability to explain issues to overseas students in lectures and to supervise research students, as well as making it difficult for researchers to communicate internationally.

  8.  Our aims could be met by ensuring, for example, that Clause 2 of the Bill expressly excludes from control the following:

    —  All information in the public domain, whether it is in the public domain before transfer or whether it is transferred by being put in the public domain;

    —  All information exchanged in the ordinary course of academic teaching or research, with the exception of information which the provider of the information knows or is informed by Government is intended for use in connection with a weapons of mass destruction or related missile programme; and

    —  All transfers of information within the UK, except information which the provider of the information knows or is informed by Government is intended for use in connection with a weapons of mass destruction or related missile programme.

  9.  Sub-clause 2(2)(c) is a matter of particular concern for universities. It exposes to control the transfer of any technology "from a person or place within the UK (but only where there is reason to believe that the information may be used outside the UK)". Except in the rare case where it is impossible for the information in question to be used outside the UK, it will surely always be the case that the information "may" be used outside the UK. Consequently, the sub-clause exposes virtually all internal transfers of information to control.

  10.  Universities UK believes that this matter should be decided by Parliament. It is wholly unsatisfactory that the protection of academic freedom should be dependent on the restraint with which Ministers exercise statutory powers. Therefore, this protection should be set out in the primary legislation.

Universities UK

April 2001

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