UK universities told they are ‘soft touch’ for autocrats

Western university chiefs defended themselves against accusations levelled at them by a former British government minister, of being naïve, arrogant and greedy in their approach to the internationalisation of higher education.

Graham Stuart, who was parliamentary under-secretary at the United Kingdom’s Department for International Trade until last year, said UK universities were seen by many as a “soft touch” for interference by autocratic states and that their research priorities are open to being dictated by totalitarian regimes.

He made the allegations in a student union-style debating session, deliberately designed to be provocative, at this year’s International Higher Education Forum (IHEF) organised by Universities UK International.

“Events of the past few weeks show why naivety and weakness in the face of totalitarian states can have real world consequences,” said the ex-government minister.

Chinese influence on UK campuses

He claimed that “financial dependence on foreign students makes courage a rare commodity” and told the conference session focusing on security and risk in international higher education that he was alarmed at the “extent of Chinese influence on UK campuses”.

Stuart said: “It is hardly surprising when Chinese students make up 29% of international students [in the UK] and 10% of all fee income” and UK university collaboration with China on research papers has risen from 1% to 11% in the past two decades.

But it was his warning that academic freedom was at risk from Confucius Institutes, which have the declared aim of promoting and teaching Chinese culture and language, that sparked one of the firmest rebukes from a panel of Western university chiefs invited to respond to Stuart’s allegations.

Professor Peter Mathieson, principal and vice-chancellor at the University of Edinburgh, said he agreed with much of Stuart’s opening argument that universities had been “a soft touch for interference”, but that was changing as Universities UK International and organisations such as the Russell Group of research-intensive universities build up their defences against cyber and other threats.

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