Britain’s leading universities are just one sector having to grapple with the recent decline in UK-China relations. Barely six years ago David Cameron was speaking of a new ‘golden age’ of partnership between the two nations but all that has changed after the Hong Kong crackdown and Xinjiang atrocities. Now there is pressure in both political and academic circles for greater transparency from Russell Group universities about their funding sources, amid increasing concern about the reliance of the UK's academic institutions on Chinese money.
For Steerpike understands that Tory backbenchers are considering whether to table amendments to the Higher Education Bill to improve transparency for the higher education sector. Cross-party support would be likely, given Labour’s demands for the government to take a tougher line on China. The legislation is expected to return to the Commons in the spring for its third reading, with former Conservative party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith among those MPs backing such calls. He told Mr S:
“British universities have, through a mixture naïveté and greed, turned a blind eye to the significant threat China poses. An amendment to the upcoming Bill is a necessary part of the solution to this – specifically to ensure that universities and their academic staff reveal the details of any funding sources in China specifically. This should also apply to funding from other authoritarian powers.
Exeter academic John Heathershaw has already submitted proposals for the UK to adopt measures similar to those passed in the United States’ Higher Education Act of 1965 – something which would mandate universities by law to make all third-party funding public. He said to Steerpike that the current system meant ‘there are all sorts of skeletons waiting to come out the closet' and that the failure of past initiatives for university self-regulation on this issue necessitated parliamentary action.
Such calls come a week after Mr S revealed that British universities have received twice as much funding from Huawei as previous estimates suggest, with an additional £28.7 million identified – findings which prompted Tobias Ellwood, the Defence Select Committee chairman, to call for a parliamentary debate. The tech giant was previously described by MPs on Ellwood's committee as being 'strongly linked to the Chinese state and the Chinese Communist party.’
When approached by Steerpike, a number of leading Russell Group universities declined to answer Freedom of Information requests about any donations or research grants they’d received from either the Chinese Ministry of Education or companies with close links to China. Subsequently, Mr S has received a further response from the University of Surrey which again shows both the extent of such funding and the lack of transparency around it.
The university received more than £10 million in research grants and donations between 2016 and 2021 but refused to say from which entities. A university spokesman said: ‘We do this in compliance with all relevant guidance and legislation, playing our part in both advancing the sum of human knowledge and delivering a global Britain.’ Glasgow meanwhile has received more than £270,000 from Hanban, which is affiliated to the Chinese Ministry of Education, since 2016.
Research by the Civitas think-tank previously detailed the relationships between Russell Group universities and Chinese weapons on researching sensitive areas which range from hypersonic technology to graphene. Radomir Tylecote, the author of the 'Inadvertently Arming China?' paper, told Mr S:
“That China’s military conglomerates and elite military universities are sponsoring scientific research centres at UK universities shows that, whatever our universities’ intentions, UK research now risks being put to use by China’s military and its growing surveillance state.
Will such places take note of which way the wind is blowing?