Universities must ‘mitigate risks’ of internationalisation, UUK warns

Prof Sir Peter Gregson and Prof Anthony Finkelstein said global risks are “increasingly dynamic and growing in complexity”

Universities must be “equipped to mitigate risks” associated with internationalisation, Universities UK (UUK) cautioned as it released new guidance that warns academic freedom and freedom of speech are subject to increased threats.

The 57-page guidance published today by UUK warned vice-chancellors that “the risks associated with internationalisation… are increasingly dynamic and growing in complexity”.

The vice-chancellor of Cranfield University Prof Sir Peter Gregson and Prof Anthony Finkelstein, the government’s chief scientific adviser for national security, noted: “The risks to universities are not limited to the theft of intellectual property and data or the security of university campuses. There are also threats to the values that have underpinned the success of the higher education sector: academic freedom, freedom of speech and institutional autonomy.”

The guidance marks the first time UUK has issued advice on this issue. Although the risks are not a recent phenomenon, Sir Peter and Prof Finkelstein warned sector bigwigs the dangers have escalated “amid intensified international strategic competition, political polarisation and backlash against globalisation”.

There are also threats to the values that have underpinned the success of the higher education sector: academic freedom, freedom of speech and institutional autonomy
Prof Sir Peter Gregson and Prof Anthony Finkelstein

Universities are increasingly international operators. The UK government has ambitious targets to expand the sector’s education and research exports, underpinned by the International Education Strategy and the UK Research and Development Roadmap. According to UUK, 57% of all UK academic publications were the result of international research collaborations, nearly 667,000 students are studying for a UK degree overseas, and higher education-related exports reached £13.4bn in 2016 and accounted for 2.4% of total UK exports.

The guidance comes just days after the Academic Freedom and Internationalisation Working Group (AFIWG) called on universities and sector bodies to adopt its new model code of conduct that aims to “embed more transparency and accountability in the UK universities’ international activities”.

The UUK guidance is more expansive than the AFIWG’s code, but both highlight the risk internalisation can pose to academic freedom and freedom of speech. The AFIWG alleged that UK universities are not transparent about their international partnerships and must “do more” to be accountable to their staff and students to protect academic freedom. Since its launch, the group have received reports of surveillance, suspensions, the loss of jobs, persecution, coercion of relatives, prosecution, and detention. In response to the AFIWG’s model code, a spokesperson for UUK said: “Universities can and do have to engage internationally, robustly protecting academic freedom, institutional autonomy and our own values. The development of a code is welcome.”

Both the UUK and AFIWG suggested university leaders develop reporting processes and encourage staff and students to identify and report their concerns. Universities should make “current and prospective partners are aware of your institution’s commitment to academic freedom and freedom of speech” and include “reputational, ethical and security risks” in any decision-making processes, the UUK guidance continued.

On transnational education partnerships (TNE), UUK said deals should balance “requirements for local autonomy with robust, centralised risk management” and include a clear “exit strategy that is supported by a comprehensive, rules-based arrangement and high-level principles”.

The new UUK advice urged universities to implement training for staff and clear cybersecurity rules for visitors.

Read more: UK universities and China: new Hepi publication explores a complex relationship

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