As students from across the globe converge on UK universities to begin the new academic year, James Murray questions whether the influence of foreign autocracies poses a threat to academic freedom of speech.

At the beginning of September, evidence was put to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons, chaired by Tom Tugendhat MP, which suggested that, while substantial numbers of international students from authoritarian states may be good for fee income, the extent to which those students are being observed and monitored by their government's agencies in the UK could be being obscured.

This evidence, which was troubling in itself, can be set in a wider context of threats to academic freedom on campuses in the UK and suggests that something must be done to hold back a tide eroding the bedrock principle on which the modern university is built.

A malign influence on academic freedom

The only academic witness to be heard by the Committee was Professor Christopher Hughes of the London School of Economics. He offered some dire warnings about the threat which the influence of foreign autocratic regimes poses to UK universities. The focus of his criticism centred on the spread of Confucius Institutes, which nominally are academic institutions intended to promote Chinese language and culture.

These, he says, are controlled and funded by the Communist Party of China (CPC) and, in reality, are a Trojan Horse in academic institutions to spread globally the CPC's ideology and silence dissent (he has elaborated on his reasoning for this conclusion more fully in an academic paper which can found here). While this is not a tactic which is exclusive to the CPC, it is the preeminent threat to academic freedom in UK universities from an autocratic regime in the world today.

Professor Hughes raised several incidents (of many in his experience) to illustrate his point. For example:

  • At a recent protest about the Hong Kong demonstrations in Trafalgar Square, Professor Hughes reported feeling intimidated and threatened by the chants of Chinese 'students', whom he suspected were being directed by the Chinese consulate.
  • At the biannual conference of the European Association of Chinese Studies in Portugal, the head of the Confucius institute in Beijing reportedly confiscated all the brochures and papers and tore out any papers which made reference to Taiwan.
  • In 2013, a conference in the United Arab Emirates was cancelled by the LSE after an academic who wished to present a paper on the royal family was refused entry to the country. The academic in question then lost his job at the LSE.

In addition to the above examples, Professor Hughes drew attention to the more amorphous problem of self-censorship, which he describes as the insidious "anaconda in the chandelier." He says that it is enough for students and academics to know about potential threats to themselves, their families and their careers; this alone will act as a check on their academic freedom.

Professor Hughes draws an analogy to the state of the academy in Hong Kong; formerly a bastion of academic freedom which is now under well documented threat by the influence of the CPC. He makes particular reference to the case of Professor Robert Chong at the University of Hong Kong, whose career suffered following research he conducted into the popularity of the Chief Executive of Hong Kong.

A weakening resilience in the academy

During the Select Committee session, Dr Hughes also made an interesting observation in relation to universities' policies which, among other things, protect freedom of speech on campus:

"I am more sceptical about whether our policies, our procedures, are fit for purpose. I think many of our procedures [only] look good on paper."

He notes this in the context of the increasing power of foreign money and influence changing the context in which these policies operate and therefore negatively affecting their utility in practice. For example, he describes himself and other outspoken colleagues being taken aside and told to "stop stirring things up" by those who wish to secure and/or retain foreign investment into their university; whether by way of grant funding, major donations or other market incentives.

However, this raises a wider point about the wording of policies and statutes in UK universities intended to uphold the principle of academic freedom of speech and the context in which these are interpreted and implemented. As noted in an earlier blog, most institutions have enshrined a commitment to academic freedom, including the freedom to test received wisdom and put forward controversial and unpopular opinions, in their governing statues and charters. Further, they are required by law to produce a code of practice with regard to their obligations to promote freedom of speech. The question is: are Universities acting in a way such as to, in practice, uphold their legal – and self-codified – duties vis-à-vis academic freedom of speech?

There is an increasing movement among academics which suggests that they are not. For example, consider the recent debate around trans rights issues (discussed in more detail here) and the controversies around Jordan Peterson and John Finnis earlier in the year. I have also discussed other phenomena said to have a "chilling effect" on freedom of speech in universities, such as such as trigger warnings, safe spaces, and no-platforming, in another earlier blog here.

The point here is that context and current practice is key – if the commitment to a robust definition and enforcement of academic freedom is weakening in the academy with regard to social justice issues, will this have the unintended consequence of weakening the academy's resilience to other threats, in particular the malign influence of foreign autocracies?

The most one could say until research is done in this area is that there does appear to be some correlation between those two factors and that, overall, both a commitment to a robust definition of academic freedom of speech and the ability to enforce it in practice are in decline in the academy.

Defending a sacrosanct freedom

What can be done about this? The answer may lie in something else said by Professor Hughes:

"the academic voice is increasingly weak and limited in shaping this agenda...if you try and raise these issues you end up being marginalised, of course, and you become a troublemaker...

My experience is that you can have all kinds of things on paper, but unless academics are empowered to safeguard the values of the university, despite having these procedures in place, no one actually uses them in the way they should."

In both areas, academics should stand up for the principle of academic freedom and, in doing so, verse themselves in the legal and institutional protections for that fundamental freedom, including their own employment rights if they are put under pressure by their institutions. In particular, they should be mindful of the powerful rights protecting their academic freedom of speech, in which rests their ability to freely opine upon matters within their professional expertise and competence over and above the more general right to freedom of expression which ordinary citizens enjoy.

One idea which has been mooted by the historian Niall Ferguson is that of "Non-conformist Academic Treaty" (inspired by NATO), which would seek to bring academics together so that they might provide mutual support when one or other of them is attacked while legitimately exercising their right to academic freedom. As there is little publicly available guidance which is truly comprehensive with regard to the law on academic freedom in the UK – including from institutions such as Universities UK and the EHRC – an organisation which can collate and disseminate reliable and accurate information about academics' rights seems to be a very good idea.

Universities too need to be mindful of their duties to protect and promote academic freedom and defend it from threats irrespective of where they emerge. They can, at times, find themselves in an invidious position balancing their legal duties, their foundational principles and the realities of operating in the modern world. Government policy in the last 20 years has exposed them more and more to the vagaries of the market economy: it is tempting to accept investment from, say, a Confucius institute when central funding has been reduced and/or to treat students as consumers and bend to the ideology du jour to attract their fees.

A practical step which Universities may wish to consider arises in the context of Universities UK's consultation on a revised concordat to support research integrity. The draft concordat "recognises that academic freedom is fundamental to the production of excellent research". It could go further, however, and include specific guidance on when academic freedom of speech has been properly engaged (see here) and how Universities should deal with the threats outlined above, in particular complaints that the limits of legitimate speech have been transgressed. In order to foster nationwide solidarity and consistency of approach, they may wish to jointly establish and fund a council for the advancement of academic freedom which can independently and dispassionately make rulings on such complaints. At the same time, they may wish to provide central funding to an academics' defence fund so that there is equality of arms between institution and individual in such investigations.

This may be expensive, but the goal of Universities is to seek truth within an ethical framework, not to make money or keep everyone 'safe' all of the time.

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