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AOAV’s evidence to the UK Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry into UK Universities’ Engagement with Autocracies

The UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee has set out to ascertain to what extent the Government has responded to concerns expressed in its 2019 report “A cautious embrace: defending democracies in an age of autocracy” about autocracies’ influence on academic freedom. It seeks to assess how effectively UK universities are responding to the systemic challenge posed by China to academic freedom and to national security while continuing to cooperate with China on mutually beneficial programmes of teaching and research. This is AOAV’s submission to their call for evidence.

Executive Summary: Action on Armed Violence, a UK-based charity that focuses on reducing the impact of armed violence, has previously raised concerns about the increasing militarization of British universities. The charity’s submission to the call for written evidence on UK Universities’ Engagement with Autocracies highlights the risk of authoritarian governments using research to repress internal opposition or to advance military objectives. The submission points out that several UK universities have accepted funding from state-backed Chinese tech companies with links to human rights and national security concerns, while Gulf states that are deeply implicated in human rights abuses also fund Islamic research departments and Middle East studies professorships. AOAV calls for UK universities to develop better ethical standards around military research funding and to increase transparency and accountability around research partnerships.

  1. Introduction: This submission is by Action on Armed Violence, a UK-based, registered charity which seeks to reduce the impact of armed violence through monitoring and research of the causes and consequences of weapon-based violence.[1] We are making this submission because ​​we have concerns about the militarisation of learning in British universities, including research that could be used for internal repression by authoritarian states. Although the focus of this report is on the potential influence of the Chinese government, we also have concerns about the influence of other states where defence research is funded by overseas nations and parties, including the US and Gulf States.
  2. Over the past 20 years, British higher educational institutions have increasingly come to rely for funding on foreign students who pay higher tuition fees. A 2022 Committee of Public Accounts report on the financial sustainability of UK higher education reveals that almost a third of the 254 Office for Students-registered higher education providers in the UK had a yearly financial deficit in 2019/20, compared to 5% in 2015/16, and “some providers are heavily reliant on income from overseas students’ fees to cross-subsidise research and other activities”.[2]
  3. That report notes that “in 2019–20, more than 340,000 overseas students came from 204 countries worldwide (excluding the EU and UK): 35% of those came from China and 14% from India.” The committee received evidence that “this income stream may be subject to pressure from wider concerns, with overreliance on certain countries that may leave UK universities vulnerable to competition and concerns about global affairs.” The newspaper The Times has also claimed that “nine UK universities depend on Chinese students for more than 20% of their income from tuition fees”.[3]
  4. It is not just a reliance on students from China that is cause for concern at UK universities. Our colleagues at investigative journalism group The Citizens revealed in 2021 that “75% of the UK’s top-ranked Russell Group academic institutions have been awarded research agreements or have accepted funding from state-backed Chinese technology firms linked to human rights and national security concerns”.[4]
  5. Many of these agreements, for work on various joint technology projects[5], are subject to confidentiality agreements and excluded from Freedom of Information requests. Some of the Chinese companies involved in these agreements, like Huawei, have been accused of complicity in the surveillance of minority groups like the Uyghurs in China. According to Byline Times, “42% of Russell Group institutions have relied on non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) or section 43 (commercial interest) exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act in order to avoid revealing details of these partnerships”.[6]
  6. A 2021 investigation by The Times also found that Huawei had “infiltrated” the University of Cambridge’s research centre, with three out the four directors of the Cambridge Centre for Chinese Management being tied to the company.[7]
  7. China in particular, but by no means alone among authoritarian states, is funding UK higher education through the fees of students, research partnerships, and by sponsoring professorships. The New Statesman reported that one China-funded professor at Cambridge warned colleagues to avoid criticising China for fear of having their funding removed, warning that “through financial support, the Chinese state is potentially able to mould the boundaries of debate on UK campuses”.[8]
  8. The report’s authors have worked as visiting professors at the University of Westminster, whose MA courses are popular with Chinese students. In one instance, a student submitted an essay containing overt Chinese government propaganda about the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. The impression given was that Chinese students feel that their conduct is being surveilled by the state and could reflect positively or negatively on them in future. This anecdotal report is borne out by other reports of the harassment of Chinese students in Australia who express pro-democracy views. One student told Human Rights Watch that “you have to choose your words very carefully. I look at my university and see the place is absolutely hooked on Chinese foreign student money.”[9]
  9. It is important, however, to not view Chinese students as a homogenous group who all have similar political views. Educating Chinese students in the UK is an important aspect of the UK’s soft power and cultural reach, and it creates links between China as an important emerging world power and the UK which could also be positive. Michael Natzler of the Higher Education Policy Institute has noted[10] that few of the CCP’s current elite were educated in the UK, because the increase in Chinese students studying in the UK only began around 2005, and that in future we could see many more CCP officials with UK educational links.
  10. This increased influence of British soft power on Chinese students coming to study in the UK may well have also led the CCP to seek to exert influence and surveillance over students studying abroad. The UK should look at how it can help foster an environment of free discussion and inquiry among its international students, while being aware that these students may fear reprisal for expressing their true opinions on subjects like Hong Kong, and China’s treatment of minority communities.
  11. It is of note that the numbers coming from China are already starting to fall, especially compared to those coming from India.[11]
  12. There is a clear interest in the influence of the Chinese state among some members of the current government. On 14 February 2023, The Guardian reported that the Prime Minister was under pressure to label China a threat to the UK.[12]
  13. However, we should not ignore the influence of money coming from other authoritarian states, especially those that also happen to be strategic military allies of the UK, in particular the Gulf countries, many of which were British colonies until 1971.
  14. Funding from Gulf states is often directed at Islamic research departments and to fund Middle East Studies professorships, and academics have been reporting[13] that this could cause them to self-censor at least since the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring protests. A survey of UK academics in 2020 found 67% of social science teachers at higher educational institutions thought that academic freedom was under threat. “Academics were also more likely to report self-censoring when teaching students coming from authoritarian regimes”, iNews reported.[14]
  15. A 2015 research paper by academics at the European University Institute in Italy found that “Gulf-funding of UK Middle East Studies research institutions is associated with less focus on democracy and human rights than non-funded comparable institutions.” [15]
  16. Military supplies and training deals between UK arms companies and the UK’s Gulf allies form an important part of the security compact in the Middle East. UK universities have at times been drawn into this strategic partnership, for example the University of Huddersfield which runs a Masters programme that trains members of the Bahraini security services. Bahrain’s police and internal security forces have been credibly accused of using torture against opposition activists and protesters in the Kingdom.[16]
  17. After Human Rights Watch and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy released a report on the torture of prisoners in Bahrain in 2022, Middle East Eye reported that “four men documented in the Bird-HRW report have alleged that they were tortured at the Royal Academy of Policing, where the University of Huddersfield runs an off-site Masters degree in security science for members of the Bahraini security forces.”[17]
  18. The militarisation of higher education in the UK has progressed significantly over the past two decades. Stavrianakis (2009) writes that arms companies working with schools and universities in the UK are a reflection of “the commercialisation and militarisation of education in pursuit of state and corporate goals.” [18] As the state has retreated from providing citizens with free public goods like education and welfare, it leaves these fields open to instrumentalisation not just by British military companies, but by those of other allies, and institutions connected to authoritarian powers like China.
  19. The organisation Demilitarise Education has recently published research showing that partnerships between universities and the defence sector are worth over £1 billion.[19] Of this total, research partnerships account for £576m while £495 million is in monetary investments. These deals are not the full picture, and the true value of partnerships is likely to be much higher than this.
  20. In 2021, AOAV published research based on Freedom of Information requests showing that between 2013 and 2020, 76 UK universities received at least £190 million in funding from 11 major arms companies.[20] Some universities refused to respond to these requests for information, citing the cost or confidentiality agreements. This lack of transparency is a problem for understanding the risks of the technology being researched.
  21. AOAV is particularly concerned about the role of UK Universities in the Development of Autonomous Weapons Systems. A 2022 report by the ‘UK Campaign to Stop Killer Robots’, a group of NGOs including Amnesty International UK, Article 36 and AOAV, found “at least 65 recent and ongoing projects within the realms of sensor technology, AI, robotics, mathematical modelling and human-machine pairing” at 13 UK-based academic institutions. [21][22]
  22. That report lists projects being undertaken at UK universities researching military technologies which are funded by authoritarian governments such as China and Turkey. It found a lack of robust ethical frameworks to apply to military funded research, and a lack of transparency hindered the report’s writers, with uneven transparency standards and Freedom of Information requests not being responded to within a reasonable time. Among the report’s recommendations are for universities to sign a pledge “calling for strong international norms, regulations and laws against lethal autonomous weapons”, to develop policies to assess the risks of dual-use AI and AWS research, and to increase transparency around these projects.[23]
  23. The UK government and security services have warned that China is interested in accessing or stealing Intellectual Property[24], and since January 2022, “the British government has had the power to scrutinise contracts, including those signed by universities, that involve sharing intellectual property with foreigners”, according to The Economist.[25]
  24. These warnings should concentrate the UK government’s mind on the danger of particularly valuable data and IP which UK universities or companies could be involved in producing and which would be valuable to authoritarian governments like China.
  25. As well as the security of Intellectual Property, the Covid pandemic has shown the dangers of relying entirely on supply chains with inputs from China. Reliance on imports of some medical goods from China meant that the UK paid over the odds for medical supplies, and that domestic firms had difficulty competing with Chinese firms. In particular, the UK government’s reliance on Chinese imports of Lateral Flow Tests (LFTs) bought by the NHS for the Test and Trace system during the Covid-19 pandemic is a cause for concern.[26]
  26. Innova Medical Group – owned by Dr Charles Huang, a Chinese-born American citizen who studied at Strathclyde University – had privileged access to Chinese manufacturing sources which allowed them to supply large quantities of LFTs to the UK. Reliance on imports of LFTs made the development of this manufacturing capability in the UK less likely, and UK companies which won contracts to supply LFTs were left disappointed, with the UK’s Porton Down laboratory failing to accredit some of their tests for production.[27] Innova Medical won over £4 billion in UK government contracts during the pandemic, and Dr Huang has donated £50 million to his alma mater, Strathclyde University. This is one of the biggest single donations to a UK university and underscores how reliant UK universities are on private donations.[28]
  27. The genetic sequencing technologies developed during the Covid pandemic could eventually be used to sequence the DNA of every UK citizen in order to assist predictive healthcare, where the government can forecast how many citizens will likely suffer from different diseases in future. Emerging fields like genomics should be treated with particular care when it comes to safeguarding IP.
  28. The UK government’s spending on higher education has fallen by over £11 billion since 2010. At that time, it amounted to over £15 billion per year, but fell to less than £5 billion in 2021. The government expects the private sector to make up for this gap in funding, and that leads inevitably to universities needing to be less discerning about who they accept money from, whether that be arms companies or foreign students. There is an obvious need to increase state funding to relieve this pressure.
  29. Given the challenge of keeping authoritarian regimes like China from accessing Intellectual Property, especially the kind which could be used for internal repression or external military aggression, it is imperative that UK universities develop ethics standards about what kind of military research they fund.
  30. Universities who have significant numbers of Chinese students should be aware that they may not feel able to express themselves freely due to the perception or reality of Chinese government surveillance. This should be taken into consideration and opportunities given for students to express themselves anonymously, or encouraged to raise such fears with university administrators in confidentiality.
  31. UK universities should engage in open dialogue with their students, staff, and civil society groups to ensure that their engagement with autocratic regimes and their affiliates is transparent, accountable, and in line with academic freedom, human rights, and democratic values.
  32. Universities should sign a pledge calling for strong international norms, regulations and laws against lethal autonomous weapons, and develop policies to assess the risks of dual-use AI and AWS research as part of their overall ethical guidelines for engagement with the defence sector.
  33. UK universities should establish clear policies and procedures for assessing the risks of engagement with autocratic regimes and their affiliates. This should include an assessment of the potential impact of such engagement on academic freedom, human rights, and democratic values.
  34. UK universities should collaborate with civil society organisations, such as human rights groups and anti-arms trade campaigners, to develop ethical guidelines for engagement with the defence sector and autocratic regimes.
  35. Universities should do due diligence about the companies which they enter into research agreements with. Companies like Huawei, which have been accused of involvement in the repression of minority groups in China, are not suitable partners for universities to work with on technologies which could enhance the ability of authoritarian states to surveil and repress dissident groups. Again, developing ethics guidelines on corporate partnerships would provide a metric for deciding which companies universities should engage with.
  36. UK universities should not have training agreements with the security services of states who are accused of torture and abuse. If Bahrain was not an allied country, Huddersfield University would not still be running a training course for its security services when they are regularly accused of human rights violations. This course should be discontinued.
  37. Universities should be more transparent and accountable about the money they receive from the defence sector. There should be a requirement to publish minimum information on the amount of money they receive from defence companies, and the nature of the research being conducted.
  38. Emerging fields like genomics which produce a lot of data should be treated with particular care in safeguarding Intellectual Property. China has used the genomic data of its own citizens to conduct ‘genetic surveillance’, and UK universities should take particular care not to work with Chinese companies implicated in using genetic data to repress minority groups.
  39. The UK government should establish a code of conduct for higher education institutions to guide their engagement with autocratic regimes and their affiliates. This code should be based on the principles of academic freedom, human rights, and democratic values, and should be regularly reviewed and updated.
  40. The UK government should provide additional funding to support domestic research and development in emerging fields, such as genomics and artificial intelligence, to reduce the reliance of UK universities on funding from autocratic regimes and their affiliates.
  41. The UK government should establish an independent regulatory body to oversee the engagement of UK universities with autocratic regimes and their affiliates, and to ensure that such engagement is consistent with academic freedom, human rights, and democratic values.