Vice-chancellors and senior leaders at UK universities say they are “in the dark” about tightening national security requirements for Chinese partnerships and are seeking greater clarity on how to navigate regulation of research and commercial work.
The call comes as several top institutions, including Imperial College London and Cambridge and Manchester universities, have been accused by China-focused analysts of generating research within partnerships which may inadvertently benefit the Chinese armed forces.
The think-tank Civitas claimed in a report this month that half of the UK’s 24 Russell Group universities, considered the leading research institutions, had relationships with universities or companies linked to China’s military.
During David Cameron’s premiership, his aspiration to foster a “golden era” of Sino-British relations meant university vice-chancellors were encouraged to pursue research collaborations.
However, bilateral relations have deteriorated in the past five years, fuelled by increasing US hawkishness and concerns that Beijing is expanding its espionage operations in the UK.
The security services issued a stark warning in late 2019 about the risks of research and commercial collaboration with countries such as China and Russia. The advice, from the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure, said hostile state actors were targeting universities to steal research and intellectual property “which could be used to help their own military, commercial and authoritarian interests”.
It also suggested that international collaboration allowed hostile state actors “to benefit from research without the need to undertake traditional espionage or cyber compromise”.
The most sensitive collaborations, highlighted by Civitas, involve “dual-use” technologies — such as facial recognition, drone or aerospace technology — which can have both civilian and military applications.
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is due to tighten controls again, expanding from May the Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS) checks for courses with military applications to researchers as well as students. It told universities last month there remained a “significant threat to the UK’s national and broader global security” if it did not “go further” in mitigating security risks.
Universities have long been required to obtain export control approval for partnerships focused on sensitive technologies or with certain countries. However, vice-chancellors and senior academics, some of whom spoke to the Financial Times on condition of anonymity, said the toughening regime meant more applications involving China were being rejected.
They described a patchy landscape of controls and uneven support that had left them unclear about security requirements and in some cases, missed research opportunities and long delays.
“We do feel we’re working somewhat in the dark,” one Russell Group vice-chancellor said. “There is a bit of a sense that we’re not entirely sure what’s changing, how it’s changing or why . . . we don’t really know what will be turned down.”
Applications had been refused more frequently in the past year, for reasons which were not always clear.
“It would be good to have clearer guidelines,” the vice-chancellor said.
One senior academic from a Russell Group university said that while they “spoke regularly” to trade and security officials about potential collaborations, this level of informal support was relatively unusual among institutions.
Paul Inman, pro vice-chancellor for global engagement at Reading university, said his department was well-versed in navigating controls.
Increasing scrutiny of universities appeared to overlook the extensive “checks and balances” already in place, he said. “The tightening is already happening.”
Prof Steve Tsang, director of the Soas China Institute in London, said that while this UK government had done a better job of understanding the risks than its predecessors, it was guilty of “trying to have its cake and eat it” by approaching China as both a security threat and a trade partner.
Tsang argued that the government needed to be more explicit about what was allowed. “We live in a country which encourages initiative and we work on the basis that anything that isn’t prohibited is allowed,” he said. “How can we expect your average university leader, who will not know China particularly, and the risk of what a collaboration might imply to them . . . to prevent this from happening?”
Sector organisations and the government have sought to provide clarity. Last October Universities UK, which represents 140 institutions, worked with Whitehall to issue guidance on security threats, including more stringent due diligence for research collaborations. The government also provides guidance on how to develop collaborations while protecting the integrity of research.
“Whilst we will not accept collaborations which compromise our national security, the UK government continues to work with the sector to identify and mitigate the risks of interference,” a spokesperson said.
Academics said that despite the guidance, they remained concerned about conflicting messages encouraging universities to be both outward-looking and guarded. One senior leader at a Russell Group institution said burdensome bureaucratic demands dissuaded staff from going ahead with some projects.
“There’s a fear the rug might be pulled out from under us,” they said. “The things that will suffer are the smaller stuff, linguistic and cultural, because it’s too bloody difficult and tedious to do.”
Tightened ATAS regulations would “limit the pool of intellectual capital” available to universities and had been interpreted as a warning shot, the person said. “It makes it difficult to do the important work we want to do.”
Lord David Willetts, a former minister for universities and science, acknowledged that universities were currently in a “grey area” and suggested the need for a “pre-clearance arrangement” to advise academics on risky collaborations before they submitted export control applications or entered partnerships.
One option, Willetts said, would be to expand the role of the National Cyber Security Centre to handle queries from universities. Or the government could create a “separate trusted agency which everyone knows they can turn to for advice”, he added.
However, others suggested universities needed to be more open about their partnerships.
Will Tanner, the director of Conservative think-tank Onward, said “the first hurdle to get over” was “a lack of information and a lack of transparency” around university activities.
“I think it would be sensible for the government to review links between UK universities and Chinese universities and Chinese state-backed companies in order to have a proper understanding before we take necessary steps,” he said. “It may be that we need further legislation in this area.”
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