Ministers target China in cracking down on foreign funding at universities as MPs demand action over fears Beijing will use campuses to censor critics of communist rule
- Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill pending in the House of Commons
- Requires universities to report financial arrangements with foreign organizations
- China’s conservative hawks threatened to introduce their own amendment last week
- Targeted the Confucius Institute, a global education and culture program
Ministers today pledged to stop ‘foreign actors’ having ‘undue influence’ on university campuses amid a row over Chinese censorship fears.
Changes to the Higher Education (Free Speech) Bill will require UK higher education institutions to report any financial arrangements they have made with individuals or organizations overseas “in order to ensure that British values are not compromised”.
Universities and student associations will also have to share details of foreign funding from specified countries, and would be subject to fines or other sanctions due to perceived risks to free speech or academic freedom due to their ways of funding.
It comes after conservative backbench critics of the communist regime in Beijing threatened to introduce their own amendment to the bill to counter what they said were efforts to whitewash its image.
MPs including Alicia Kearns have targeted the Confucius Institute, a global education and culture programme. The group, which has branches at British universities such as Edinburgh, Manchester and UCL, is funded by an organization linked to the Chinese government.
Sweden ended its work in the Scandinavian country in May 2020. Months later, in August 2020, then-US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the US operation “an entity doing advance Beijing’s global campaign of propaganda and malign influence”.
MPs including Alicia Kearns have targeted the Confucius Institute, a global education and culture program which has branches at UK universities including Edinburgh, Manchester and UCL.
But Sweden ended its work in the Scandinavian country in May 2020. Months later, in August 2020, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the US operation “an entity advancing the global campaign of Beijing’s propaganda and malevolent influence”.
On Friday, Ms Kearns warned that the Chinese government had too much of a hold on Britain’s universities, adding that ‘education is being militarized by those who are against us’.
She said the Confucius Institutes – public language and cultural education programs “damage the integrity of Mandarin education in our country”.
The proposed threshold for reporting is £75,000 and will exempt countries such as Japan and Australia, listed in the Academic Technology Approval Scheme, as well as countries in the European Union and NATO.
The Department for Education on Monday opened nominations for its new director for free speech and academic freedom to serve on the board of the Student Office.
The director will have the power to sanction universities for non-platform or illegal restriction of freedom of expression.
Minister for Higher and Further Education Michelle Donelan said: ‘We are home to some of the best universities in the world and for decades students have traveled thousands of miles across the world to study here because of our values. freedom of expression and academic freedom.
‘It is right that we take further action to protect our universities from undue foreign influences which run counter to British values - it is a bill the rest of the world will take note of.’
She added that she looked forward to working with the new director “to tackle these important issues and ensure that we remain one of the most academically free countries in the world.”
Further and Further Education Minister Michelle Donelan said: “It is right that we take further steps to protect our universities from undue foreign influences which run counter to British values - this is a plan of law that the rest of the world will take note of.”
The Commons will also debate a new amendment to the bill on Monday to ensure that the security costs of visiting lecturers at universities are not passed on to student societies, to prevent “the lack of a platform through the back door.
The amendment states that security costs should be covered by the relevant body, rather than being passed on to companies or event organisers.
The government says the amendment follows instances where a student body at Bristol University faced a £500 security fee from the student union for inviting the Israeli ambassador to give a lecture , while he would not have charged anything to his Palestinian counterpart.
The Union of Jewish Students has reported that some Jewish companies have been charged security fees for a booth at student fairs.
The amendments will also state that the legislation must include student unions at individual colleges, known as junior or intermediate common rooms, for example those based at Oxford and Cambridge colleges.