A cautious embrace: defending democracy in an age of autocracies Contents

2Autocracies’ influence in academia

4.Autocracies’ influence in UK universities is a complex phenomenon which can take different forms. Our definition of influence in this context includes:10

Financial, political or diplomatic pressure, to shape the research agenda or curricula of UK universities, whether at the macro level (for example, providing direct or indirect financial support for research or educational activities with explicit or implicit limits on the scope of the subjects that can be discussed) or at the micro level (for example, pressuring event organisers not to invite certain speakers);

Attempts to limit the activities of UK university campuses or joint venture universities abroad which constrain freedoms that would normally be protected in the UK, such as criticisms of foreign governments;

Pressure on UK-based researchers who focus on subjects related to the countries concerned, including through visa refusals, pressure on university leadership, pressure on relatives still living in that country;

Pressure on UK-based students born in the country concerned, or on their families, to inform on the speech or activities of other students, or to engage in political protest in the UK in support of the country’s objectives.

5.During our inquiry into China and the rules-based international system, we heard alarming evidence about the extent of Chinese influence on the campuses of UK universities.11 Despite the fact that there are now over 100,000 Chinese students in the UK, the issue of Chinese influence has been the subject of remarkably little debate compared to that in Australia, New Zealand and the US.12

6.Universities have a strong incentive to establish overseas partnerships to secure funding and enhance collaboration on research projects, but this should be balanced with potential risks to academic freedom. Universities UK told us that “the vast majority of international partnerships are highly beneficial to all parties and augment the UK’s standing on the global stage”13 but warned that there is a significant threat from hostile state actors of “misappropriation of research output, including the seizing of research data and intellectual property”.14

7.The need for universities to attract more funding and grow internationally can come into conflict with the principle of academic freedom. Dr Catherine Owen of the University of Exeter highlighted this tension, stating that it was becoming more acute as the commercialisation of global academia intensifies.15 She noted that “China’s internationalising trend in higher education has been accompanied by domestic attempts to curb the influence of educational norms and values associated with the West.”16

8.Professor Christopher Hughes of the LSE told us that he had seen Chinese students in London engaged in activities that undermine Hong Kong protestors17 and Chinese Confucius Institute officials confiscating papers which mention Taiwan at an academic conference.18 Charles Parton of RUSI said that the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), which is supported and partly financed by the Chinese Government, was an instrument of this interference: “Its stated aim is to look after Chinese students, but it also reports on them to the embassy and authorities, tries to stop discussion of topics sensitive to China (Taiwan, Tibet, Tiananmen), and takes more direct action under guidance of the embassy.”19 Ayeshagul Nur Ibrahim, an Uyghur Muslim who became politically active while studying in the UK, told us how the Chinese Government started monitoring her and harassing her family in China.20

9.There are allegations that these efforts are directly coordinated by the Chinese Embassy. Earlier this year, SOAS Professor Steve Tsang said:

In one Russell Group University a pro-vice chancellor was spoken to by someone in the Chinese embassy and as a result he stood a speaker who was already invited down… I am also aware of a vice-chancellor again under pressure from the Chinese embassy asking one of his senior academics not to make political comments on China at a specified period of time.21

10.Pressure is exerted in other ways. According to one recent media report, managers at the University of Nottingham—one of two UK universities with a branch in China—pressured academics to cancel events relating to Tibet and Taiwan, at the university’s Chinese and British campuses after complaints from Chinese officials.22 Another reported that LSE halted a proposed China studies scheme funded by a pro-Beijing venture capitalist after academics raised concerns about its impact on academic freedom.23

11.Similar issues have been reported in other countries. Human Rights Watch published a 12-point Code of Conduct for US universities responding to Chinese influence, stating that the Chinese government “has stepped up surveillance of diaspora communities, including through controls on students and scholars from China”.24

12.Most of the evidence we received related to Chinese influence in UK universities, but there are claims that other autocracies pose similar threats. Although Russia’s overall influence in UK universities is low, the Russkiy Mir Foundation25—a Russian Government-sponsored body—is active on UK campuses, according to UCL’s Dr Peter Duncan. He told us; “I have personal knowledge of a Russkiy Mir employee planting a bugging device to record an academic discussion on Russia held by the British International Studies Association in Edinburgh.”26

13.We heard evidence that Central Asian autocracies also put pressure on UK academics. Professor John Heathershaw of the University of Exeter said that “travel bans, ‘interviews’ with the security services, detentions for hours and days, and threats against family members by authorities, are commonplace for academics working on projects with UK universities”,27 while a Kazakh study programme is monitored by the country’s national security services, and students are subject to surveillance and control measures, including through the use of Kazakh societies on UK campuses.28

14.However, university representatives who gave evidence to the inquiry did not acknowledge this issue. The Russell Group told us “we are not aware of any significant or systematic attempts to influence university activity by foreign actors in any of the ways outlined in your letter. Nor have we held any discussions with Ministers or officials about improper foreign influence.”29 Bill Rammell, Chairman of Million Plus, which represents 20 ‘modern universities’ in the UK, said he had “not heard one piece of evidence” that substantiates claims of foreign influence in universities.30 When we asked the Minister31 why there had not been engagement with these organisations specifically about foreign interference, she said that she was surprised “because the Department for Education has met the Russell Group.”32

15.There are strong signs that the FCO is not treating the issue of interference in academia as the priority it should be. Although the Government said in June, in its response to our China inquiry, that it had initiated work to understand universities’ concerns and needs regarding protection from interference, and said it would issue written guidance “shortly”, this does not yet appear to have been done, and the FCO made no mention of this in its written evidence. When we asked about the FCO’s assessment of the risks posed by autocracies to academic freedom in the UK, the relevant FCO Minister told us: “We get anecdotal reports, sometimes from universities, that x or y pressures are being applied to them. In those situations, the advice that I and my team would always give would be absolutely to stand clearly to the values and principles by which their university is established”.33 The Minister appeared relaxed when we suggested that there is a discrepancy between the FCO’s policy and the urgency of this issue, stating, “at the moment, we have not had particular grumbles back, but we want to make sure, through things like the trusted research work, that they feel they can come to us, either through the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy or the Department for Education.”34

16.Given the weight of the evidence publicly available, we were surprised that the FCO’s submission to this inquiry did not identify academia as being a distinct area at risk of influence by autocracies. We recommend that the FCO inform the Committee, in confidence if necessary, of its assessment of the extent of the problem.

The FCO’s response

17.In 2017–18, UK universities received £8.2 billion in research income, £1.39 billion of which came from international sources.35 The Government has stated that research collaboration with institutions based in autocratic states “can be vulnerable to misuse by organisations and institutions who operate in nations whose democratic and ethical values are different from our own.”36 In the UK, ‘Trusted Research’ and ‘academic technology approval schemes’ are designed to protect universities working in collaboration with foreign institutions, particularly in terms of protecting sensitive technology from intellectual theft.37 Trusted Research schemes aim to “secure the integrity of the system of international research collaboration, which is vital to the continued success of the UK’s research and innovation sector.”38

18.Some UK institutions are reluctant to respond to allegations of influence due to their reliance on income from student recruitment and research grants. In the course of the inquiry, we sought to examine how other countries address similar issues. Alexander Bustamante, of the University of California, said that “one of the items we first identified in the beginning was that we did not have an understanding of the scope of the issue.” His university sought support from US federal authorities to remedy this.39

19.We note the introduction of the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme in Australia (FITSA) in December 2018, with the aim to provide visibility of the nature, level and extent of foreign influence on Australia’s Government and political process to the public. The scheme introduced registration obligations for persons and entities who have arrangements with, and undertake certain activities on behalf of, foreign principals. This includes universities that are recipients of overseas donations as the FITSA applies to universities that undertake political or governmental lobbying, communication activities or disbursement activities on behalf of foreign entities. In the US, a recent Senate report recommends the US Department of Justice to probe whether Confucius Institutes should register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, the American forerunner to Australia’s framework.40

20.The FCO told us that they are tracking the way conversations about tackling foreign influence in UK universities have unfolded in Australia and other partner countries.41 When we asked them about the merits of introducing measures such as the Australian Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme42 to protect UK universities from malign foreign influence, we were told only that the Department’s approach is to carry this forward in its open dialogue with the pro-vice-chancellors.43

21.The UK, along with Australia, Canada and the US, is the most popular overseas destinations for Chinese students.44 In its 2019 International Education Strategy White Paper, the Government makes the case for a whole-of-Government approach to boosting the UK higher education sector globally.45 The paper mentions China over 20 times in the context of boosting education export to the Chinese market, with no mention of security or interference. At present, the international education strategy involves the Department of Education and the Department of International Trade, with no evidence of input from the FCO.

22.The FCO’s role in advising universities on the potential threats to academia from autocracies is non-existent. There is no evidence that it has considered the threat from autocracies to academic freedom, which underpins the quality of UK higher education, nor engaged sufficiently with other departments to develop a co-ordinated response. We believe that it is vital for the FCO to take the lead across Government on this issue, given that foreign influence falls directly within the Department’s remit.

23.We are disappointed that the FCO has not made detailed assessments about how the UK and its universities should respond to foreign influence in UK academia, and at its failure to engage directly with counterparts in the US, Australia or elsewhere to share best practice. We recommend that the Government and universities develop together a strategy to address the challenges posed by autocracies to UK universities. As a starting point, the Government should examine mounting evidence of foreign influence in UK universities to fully understand the extent of the problem. This strategy should examine the extent to which market incentives may serve to undermine academic freedom in the UK. We recommend that the Government share with us in confidence the details of this strategy by Autumn 2020.

24.We further recommend that a Senior Responsible Owner (SRO) is appointed to coordinate the FCO’s response to threats to academic freedom. The Government should nominate a single point of contact to both gather evidence from, and provide advice to, academic institutions on the political, diplomatic and legal implications of accepting funding and pursuing collaboration with institutions based in non-democratic states. We recommend that the Government appoints a cross-departmental Whitehall champion for academic freedom to coordinate the different agencies involved in monitoring and responding to foreign influence.

25.We recommend that the Government engages in dialogue with Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US to explore ways to protect universities from attempts by autocracies to use their financial muscle to leverage influence through the withdrawal of funding. This could take place through existing structures such as the Commonwealth.

26.We welcome the Government’s use and promotion of ‘trusted research’ and academic technology approval schemes to protect UK universities from intellectual theft that may arise from academic collaboration with universities from autocratic states. The Government should continue to support such schemes and provide up-to-date guidance to universities on the political, diplomatic and legal implications of accepting funding and pursuing collaboration with institutions based in non-democratic states.

10 We wrote to Universities UK and the Russell Group asking whether they were aware of examples of influence as defined above.

11 Foreign Affairs Committee, Sixteenth Report of Session 2017–19, China and the Rules-Based International System, HC 612, paras 107–111,
See oral evidence, 8 January 2019, Q124–128, Q143–145, Q152

12 The UK has the second largest share of international students in the world (11%), after the US (24%), many of them Chinese. See Higher Education Statistics Agency https://www.hesa.ac.uk/news/11–01–2018/sfr247-higher-education-student-statistics/location

13 Universities UK (AFP0032), executive summary

14 Universities UK (AFP0032), executive summary

15 Dr Catherine Owen (AFP0033), paras 1–7

16 Dr Catherine Owen (AFP0033), paras 5

18 Prof Christopher Hughes told us: “I have seen patriotic Chinese students in Trafalgar Square in London, because I went along to look at the Hong Kong demonstration, and I would say it was more like hate crime. The things they were saying—“traitor”. I won’t go into the details, but it was really intimidating and threatening. I do not think they were students; I do not know who they were. However, it is that kind of activity where there are clear links of direction from the consulate”. Q42

19 Parton further notes that: In 2017, Chinese embassy officials in Canberra gave training to hundreds of CSSA students to form ‘security squads’ to help drown out protesters during the visit of Premier Li Keqiang to Australia. The same thing seems to have happened during Li’s visit to the UK in 2014. In February 2017, the CSSA organised students to barricade the building where the Durham University Debating Society had invited a speaker who supports the Falun Gong (a spiritual movement banned in China). The Chinese embassy also contacted the debating society, asking it to cancel the speaker’s invitation and accusing it of harming the China–UK ‘Golden Era’.” RUSI, China-UK Relations: Where to Draw the Border Between Influence and Interference?, Charles Parton, February 2019, page 15.

20 Q6, Ayeshagul Nur Ibrahim told us: My sister lives away, but she gave me a hint: “Don’t call me too often.” I said, “Okay.” Actually, I do not call them too often. Normally I just say, “Hello. How is the family?” and so on. Then she told me, “You should be cautious about your activities,” and I thought, “What’s going on?” Then, in a short message, she said, “Stop sending anything. We’re all well, so just keep quiet.” Then she said, “I went to the police, so you should know.” It was just a short, incomplete sentence. Then she said, “They already know where you are. Maybe they will call you.” I was surprised, but I already knew they had cut the landline. My sister is a lawyer herself, and I thought about what might happen to her. I was worrying about this, so I cut contact with my sister as well because I wanted to protect my family. Then I understood that, as an educated person, if I am myself having this pressure, what happens to the ordinary people living there? I am already outside. I am not a political activist or somebody who often speaks against the Chinese Government, so if this is happening to me, what happens to the people living there under that control all the time?

21UK vulnerable to Chinese interference, report says”, BBC News, 20 February 2019

25 Russkiy Mir Foundation (Russian: Фонд “Русский мир”, literally “Russian World Foundation”) is a Russian government-sponsored organisation formally aiming to promote the Russian language worldwide.

26 Dr Pete Duncan (AFP0031), para 11

27 Dr John Heathershaw, written evidence (AFP0029), para 17

28 Ibid

29 Correspondence 18 March 2019

31 On 22 October, we questioned Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Minister for Asia and the Pacific) Heather Wheeler MP, along with FCO Officials Martin Harris, Director of Eastern Europe and Central Asia and Kate White, Director of the Asia-Pacific Directorate.

36 Ibid

42 The Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme commenced on 10 December 2018. Its purpose is to provide the public and government decision-makers with visibility of the nature, level and extent of foreign influence on Australia’s government and political process.

Published: 5 November 2019