Protecting academic freedom in international partnerships

Some valid suggestions to reduce foreign government influence:

We live in an age of academic internationalisation, especially pronounced in the United Kingdom. This has in many ways been a good thing. 

It has become more common for research institutions across the globe to establish collaborative research and joint degree programmes, often hugely benefiting research and teaching. Individual scholars and students travel more easily and frequently today, too, and their ideas and arguments travel with them. 

Moreover, even when physical travel is interrupted, as it is at the moment, academic communities can interact and stay connected remotely. 

But internationalisation has also produced new risks, especially in the context of engagement, exchange and collaboration with non-democratic countries. 

In an age of ‘democratic retrogression’ and deepening authoritarianism affecting many countries, many members of the global academic community face growing challenges – including censorship and travel restrictions, disciplinary measures and dismissals, criminal prosecutions and even physical attacks, as has been well documented by Scholars At Risk and other groups. 

Such repression has become increasingly internationalised, not only because repressive governments can extend threats and censorship across borders, but also because marketised funding structures, the casualisation of academic work and an opportunistic approach to building global ties have made academic actors within liberal democracies more vulnerable – and sometimes less willing to stand up for academic freedom and integrity. 

This is the case, for example, when universities take funding that comes with strings attached or raises concerns about the donor’s political goals or when academic publishers decide to accept censorship instructions from autocratic governments, apparently for commercial reasons. 

Exporting repression

Against this background, we must be concerned about the terms of our engagement with academic institutions abroad, as well as about repressive governments and institutions’ ability to ‘export repression’ in the field of academia.

At a time when the global pandemic has changed academic life beyond recognition for many of us in the UK and globally, and as we are already overburdened with the challenges arising immediately from COVID, we may feel reluctant to engage with further, more long-term challenges. 

Yet, as members of the recently established Academic Freedom and Internationalisation Working Group (AFIWG) in the UK, we feel that the challenges posed by academic internationalisation must be dealt with without delay – and, indeed, that the pandemic has exacerbated some of these challenges, for example, by making us more dependent on online communication.

Universities could respond in several ways. Denial – such as that by the Chair of Million Plus group of universities, Bill Rammell, in his evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) of the House of Commons in 2019 – is no longer tenable. 

An auditing response of generic and top-down reporting requirements, which spread like viruses through UK higher education, are also unlikely to touch conditions on the ground. 

Similarly, the notion that universities must “sensitively balance the need to uphold academic freedom with the importance of internal academic collaboration”– as suggested by then Universities UK president Janet Beer in her letter to the FAC – is equally inadequate and betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the value of academic freedom. 

Faced with such inertia, the UK government, including its security agencies, have pressed British higher education to develop security guidelines and risk management strategies. In guidance just released, Universities UK finally addresses these concerns with academic freedom considered among a range of objects and values to be defended, including intellectual property and “national security”.

A new code of conduct

However, while there may be a need for draconian measures in rare cases, a national security approach is largely inappropriate as it is founded on false premises. 

UK universities are not national institutions under threat, but global institutions so thoroughly internationalised that any attempt to cut them off from foreign influence may make the problem worse. 

It would feed the narrative of some authoritarian states that they are vehicles of British ‘soft power’ against their values and even Trojan horses for spying researchers. 

A far better response is for a bottom-up process led by academic staff, supported by students, civil society and unions. 

The AFIWG has composed a Draft Model Code of Conduct for UK higher education institutions to bestow duties on them to protect their academic communities at home and abroad and be transparent and accountable to their members. 

It is a draft and a model so it can be revised in the coming months of consultation and adapted from the minimum standards enshrined in the model.

These minimum standards include a stipulation that universities must undertake meaningful risk assessment and due diligence when transnational collaboration is being considered before any agreement or arrangement is begun. 

In particular, they must ensure memorandums of understanding (MoUs) on international partnerships, including foreign campuses and the affiliation of foreign education or research institutions to UK higher education institutions within the UK, are subject to consultation across the university.

With regard to protecting their staff and students overseas, universities must evaluate academic freedom and the risks associated with its absence, as when planning fieldwork and field trips abroad, and make available enhanced travel insurance to cover politically motivated or arbitrary detention by state authorities.

On campuses at home, universities should ensure that academic freedom requirements, including personal data protection for these members of the academic community, are incorporated within all MoUs with state scholarship programmes. Vice-chancellors and their gifts committees must make all MoUs and summary information on all foreign donations public.

A system of confidential and public reporting is required to enhance protection and accountability. UK universities should establish a confidential and independent internal reporting mechanism to a designated individual on campus for cases or issues of concern, while serious cases and issues, including all those involving a threat to the welfare of the complainant, should be passed to a new, independent ombudsperson.

An academic freedom model in authoritarian times?

This is a model and draft which may have relevance far beyond the UK. It is designed to be revised via debate on campus among staff and students and adopted according to minimum conditions. The duties it imposes are on universities’ leaders – not on staff and students who may be vulnerable themselves. 

But there is a risk. If vice-chancellors pass down the code of conduct in the form of new and onerous auditing requirements for staff, or if governments make them matters of national security, academic freedom will be weakened, not strengthened. The way to protect academic freedom is for universities to be held to account by their academics and students. 

We must use our freedom before we lose it. 

John Heathershaw is professor of international relations at the University of Exeter, United Kingdom. Eva Pils is a professor of law at King’s College London, UK.

Source: https://www.universityworldnews.com/post-nl.php?story=20201015062104681

Hong Kong democracy advocates angry after Ottawa-funded group buys ad backing China’s side

Understandably so:

A Chinese Canadian group that has received more than $130,000 in federal funding published a newspaper advertisement that condemned democracy protesters in Hong Kong and closely mirrored Beijing’s stance on unrest in the city.

Critics of the regime say they’re appalled that Canadian taxpayers are backing an organization that would pay to intervene on China’s side in the Hong Kong turmoil, likely at the behest of Chinese officials.

But it’s not the only recent example of federal funding linked to activities that support Beijing, as the two countries remain locked in a tense diplomatic standoff.

The ad placed by the “non-political” Council of Newcomer Organizations appeared weeks before a festival co-organized by China’s consulate general in Toronto, designed in part to celebrate the 70 th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic.

Our government is using taxpayers’ money to enable CCP influence and infiltration into our society and politics

Heritage Canada gave a multiculturalism grant of $62,000 to last month’s “Dragon Festival” through the event’s other organizer, the Canadian Association of Chinese Performing Arts.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government invited the heads of both the newcomer council — which was founded by Liberal MP Geng Tan — and the performing arts group to attend this week’s anniversary celebrations in Beijing.

Council executive chairman Zhu Jiang was quoted as saying he wept as he witnessed the military parade through Tiananmen Square Tuesday, realizing how much he “loved the motherland.”

“Our taxpayers’ money should have never been used to fund such organizations and activities,” said Ivy Li, a spokeswoman for the group Canadian Friends of Hong Kong. “By doing so, our government is using taxpayers’ money to enable CCP (Chinese Communist Party) influence and infiltration into our society and politics. This is a total betrayal of Canadian voters.”

It is “very troubling” that Ottawa helped pay for an event — the Dragon Festival — that marked a totalitarian state’s anniversary, added Cheuk Kwan of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China. The consulate “should be funding the whole thing, and then they can make whatever speech they want,” he said.

Heritage Canada, the main funder of the newcomer council, was unable to comment by deadline.

Neither the newcomer council nor Dragon Festival organizers could be reached for comment.

Critics say the incidents are just the latest examples of China’s long soft-power reach into Canadian society, with the added wrinkle of financial support from Ottawa.

Beijing has reportedly poured increasing resources into such efforts in recent years, the influence campaigns spearheaded by a party branch called the United Front Work Department (which reportedly invited Zhu to the anniversary gala). Its actions have come under newfound scrutiny in Canada as the feud with China unfolds.

The arrest in January of Huawei Technologies executive Meng Wanzhou under an extradition treaty with the U.S. touched off an angry response from Beijing. China imprisoned two Canadians on ill-defined espionage charges, abruptly increased a Canadian’s drug-trafficking sentence to death from 15 years in jail, and imposed trade barriers on billions in Canadian agricultural imports.

The Council of Newcomer Organizations placed its ad in the Chinese Canadian Times — a free, Chinese-language newspaper that claims a “vast distribution network across Ontario” — in early August.

At that point, the Hong Kong demonstrations had been mostly peaceful, bringing a million or more people to the streets some days to oppose a now-defunct extradition law, decry alleged police brutality and call for more democracy.

The council’s ad dismissed the protests as a foreign-incited assault on the city’s stability, much as the strife has been characterized by China itself.

“Recently, certain self-serving political actors who do not hesitate to collude with foreign anti-Chinese powers, luring young extremist activists to be their cannon fodder, have continuously violated the peace of Hong Kong,” it said in part.

Heritage Canada said it has funded the council to the tune of $99,760 over the past several years. Employment and Social Development Canada granted it $38,000 in 2016.

The council’s own website — which describes the group as non-political — suggests an orientation toward China.

Much of the site is devoted to sports events, essay contests and other activities for local young people. But one of five sections in the English version – headed “legislation” – lists summaries of several Chinese laws, including one outlining restrictions on religious activities by foreigners. And there are several articles about “roots-seeking” trips for youth to China, organized by Beijing’s Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, part of the United Front.

Last month’s Dragon Festival outside Toronto’s City Hall involved booths and performances highlighting Chinese arts, food and culture.

But at its launch, one master of ceremonies said in Mandarin it was also an early celebration of “the 70th birthday of our motherland.” In his speech, Consul General Han Tao said the festival should help increase understanding and friendship between peoples, and then referenced the 70 th anniversary on Oct. 1 and China’s rise from a “poor and weak” nation to the world’s second-largest economy.

A consulate press release on the festival said in Chinese it would include events to “celebrate the (ancestral) homeland” on the occasion of the anniversary.

Source: Hong Kong democracy advocates angry after Ottawa-funded group buys ad backing China’s side