Universities not transparent about risk of international partnerships to academic freedom, experts warn

The Academic Freedom and Internationalisation Working Group is calling for universities to adopt its new model code of conduct

UK universities are not transparent about their international partnerships and must “do more” to be accountable to their staff and students in order to protect academic freedom, experts working in higher education have warned.

The Academic Freedom and Internationalisation Working Group (AFIWG),­ which was created in September 2019, comprises academics and researchers working in the higher education sector.

Since its launch a year ago, the group has received reports of surveillance, suspensions, the loss of jobs, persecution, coercion of relatives, prosecution, and detention.

It is now calling for universities and HE professional bodies to adopt its new model code of conduct, which aims to “embed more transparency and accountability in the UK universities’ international activities”.

The group want 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.

Such risks can be exacerbated by some forms of transnational collaboration that lead to dependencies, including foreign funding arrangements and research and education partnerships
Prof Eva Pils, King’s College London

The AFIWG’s working group members comprise professors and senior academics from the universities of Exeter, Lincoln, King’s College London, Edinburgh, the London School of Economics and Political Science, London, Oxford and Goldsmiths, and are specialists in the fields of education, human rights, international relations, law and sociology.

AFIWG member Prof John Heathershaw, from the University of Exeter, said international collaboration had been “positive in helping universities and academics across the world cooperate”, he warned that academic freedom was at risk “because some governments want to curtail intellectual inquiry and dissent, directly or indirectly, by preventing academics and students from expressing views, as well as teaching and conducting research, on topics deemed to be sensitive”.

The new code was drafted with guidance from Scholars at Risk, the Council for At-Risk Academics and the All-Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group (PHRG).

Prof Eva Pils, an AFIWG member from King’s College London, said some countries’ domestic legal systems “fail to protect” academic freedom. “Such risks can be exacerbated by some forms of transnational collaboration that lead to dependencies, including foreign funding arrangements and research and education partnerships,” she continued.

“It is crucial for everyone involved in the UK Higher Education sector to acknowledge that there are risks to academic freedom and to work collectively and transparently to mitigate and address them. If this can be achieved, then the internationalisation of higher education and research in the UK can be overwhelmingly positive for all those involved.”


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