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Refuse money from human rights abusers, academics tell universities

Poll shows heightened concerns around academic freedom – and says one in five self-censors when teaching students from autocratic states

A new survey from the University of Exeter has found that UK academics want universities to refuse funding from foreign organisations and individuals or nations linked with human rights concerns.

The poll of over 1,500 social scientists based in UK universities was conducted by academics from the universities of Exeter and Oxford in association with the Academic Freedom and Internationalisation Working Group (AFIWG), which was launched in 2019 and is made up of eight academics from Edinburgh, Exeter, London (School of Advanced Study, Goldsmiths, LSE, and KCL), Lincoln, and Oxford.

Key findings

  • Three quarters (75 per cent) of respondents said academics in UK universities should not accept money from foreign entities or governments who do not respect human rights.
  • 56 per cent believed universities should end partnerships and raise concerns with a national regulator or ombudsperson if an external partner is found to be pressuring the university by attempting to change the content of a degree programme.
  • 65 per cent declared that they didn’t know whether their departments had guidelines on academic freedom.
  • Around 70 per cent said they considered academic freedom to be under threat at UK universities.
  • 39 per cent expressed concern about the freedom of academics to conduct research without commercial or political interference
  • 30 per cent felt academic freedom was under threat from institutional censorship.
  • 73 per cent said they do not self-censor when teaching students from autocratic states, but about one in five (20 per cent) said they did. About one in six (15 per cent) said they self-censored when reporting fieldwork findings.
  • A majority of those who took part in the study (58 per cent) said the nationality of their students did not have an impact on the content of their teaching, but approximately one in four (23 per cent) said it did.

The issue of foreign interference in UK universities is complex, and this research shows people have wide-ranging concerns about external and especially internal attempts to curb academic freedom – Professor John Heathershaw, University of Exeter/AFIWG

New code of conduct

In October, the AFIWG released a model code of conduct to assist universities in developing academic freedom policies, having received reports from academics of surveillance, suspensions, the loss of jobs, persecution, coercion of relatives, prosecution, and detention.

The group wants universities to carry out “substantive due diligence” when accepting donations from foreign funders, and state and corporate partners, and publicly report every year on efforts to protect academic freedom internationally. The code also urges to universities to conduct annual, transparent reviews and perform detailed background checks into “international actor(s) seeking collaboration”.

The code asks UK universities to give students and staff the opportunity to report concerns confidentially, including by designating an individual at the institution responsible for monitoring. It also recommends the creation of a new ombudsperson for the UK higher education sector to deal with the most serious cases.

The AFIWG said academics “are too often frozen out of partnership decisions” and should be consulted more before deals are signed.

Over 60 per cent of respondents in the new survey said they favour the adoption of such a code of conduct within their institution.

“The issue of foreign interference in UK universities is complex, and this research shows people have wide-ranging concerns about external and especially internal attempts to curb academic freedom,” said Professor John Heathershaw, from the University of Exeter and the AFIWG, who led the research.

“UK social scientists are most concerned about how the changing nature of global higher education is exposing them to risk and how their institutions are managing risk, rather than about the foreign ‘threats’ themselves.”

Dr Tena Prelec, from the University of Oxford and also a member of the AFIWG, said: “The combination of high concern and uncertainty demonstrate the need for academics to be more involved in the governance of their institutions. Top-down governance, reputation management, and even the extension of formal ethics are insufficient solutions in themselves. A better way forward is bottom-up, and should include the use of a code of conduct by staff and students to ensure transparency and accountability.”


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