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Universities facing new China cash crackdown

Move ‘to stop UK values being compromised’

By Ben Ellery

June 13, 2022

Michelle Donelan, the universities minister, will set out new rules on investment from “foreign actors”


Universities will be forced to reveal investment from “foreign actors” under plans being put forward by the government this week to crack down on undue influence.

Michelle Donelan, the universities minister, will set out rules requiring them to report any financial arrangements they have with individuals or organisations overseas, “to ensure that UK values cannot be compromised”.

The change, which will be proposed today as an amendment to the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, is proposed against a backdrop of universities accepting money from hostile nations such as China and Russia.

The threshold for reporting will be £75,000. Countries in the academic technology approval scheme, which certifies foreign students for entry into the UK to study or conduct research in sensitive technology-related fields, will be exempt. These include Nato and European Union allies, Japan and Australia.

Last week The Times reported that Jesus College Cambridge had accepted hundreds of thousands of pounds from an investor who is considered to be one of China’s most wanted men.

The college has been at the centre of several controversies involving money from China. Last month it said it would rename its China Centre, and promised to be more transparent about funding after it was revealed that its director had trained Communist Party figures to be better leaders.

The Times reported last year that three out of four directors at a Cambridge University research centre had ties with Huawei, the telecoms company with alleged links to the Chinese state.

In March it was revealed that Oxford University had accepted more than £3 million in donations from Vladimir Potanin, a billionaire crony of President Putin who was accused in parliament of making his money by “robbing assets from the Russian people”.

Alicia Kearns, a Conservative MP who chairs the China Research Group, said: “This is a long overdue step towards transparency at our universities. The next stage is for UK universities to stop signing partnerships that undermine our values and security.”

Universities and students’ unions will be required to detail such funding arrangements to the Office for Students (OfS), which will include a summary of the information in its annual report, along with trends and patterns of concern.

Government sources said the change to the bill would give the OfS wide-ranging powers to investigate and take action against universities that were found to have inappropriate links with foreign entities.

It will be able to investigate complaints by academics, students, politicians or journalists, and set conditions for any relationship with donors seen to represent a conflict of interest. In extreme cases the OfS could fine universities that refused to abide by its rulings.

“This gives the OfS similar powers to police universities’ financial links with foreign bodies as they currently have over academic standards,” a source at the Department for Education said. “We believe that this amendment puts robust safeguards in place.”

The department, which will open applications today for a new director for freedom of speech and academic freedom on the board of the OfS, said the new rules would not hamper universities’ ability to work with global partners. A source said the act would not apply retroactively, meaning that universities would not have to explain funds still being used.

Donelan said: “We are home to some of the best universities in the world and for decades students have travelled thousands of miles across the globe to study here because of our values of free speech and academic freedom.

“It is right that we are taking new action to protect our universities from undue foreign influences.”

Another amendment will seek to ban “Confucius Institutes”. These bodies, of which there are 29 in the UK, are meant to be culture and language centres but countries including the US and Sweden are closing them over concerns they are used for spying.

Kearns said last week that they were “undermining the integrity of the Mandarin education in our country”.

Alan Mendoza, founder of the Henry Jackson Society think tank, said: “The amount of foreign investment into UK universities has reached unprecedented levels . . . It’s time to shine a light on the largest of these donations to ensure we are all aware of which countries are funding which programmes.”

Other amendments will include measures to prevent universities from no-platforming speakers students find offensive. It will also ensure that security costs for speakers are not passed to student societies, preventing “no-platforming by the back door”.


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