The Internationalization of Universities and the Repression of Academic Freedom
Lucrative partnerships, foreign access, and expatriate academic networks create many opportunities – including a chance for authoritarian states to assert their influence across borders.
Academic freedom 1 is at the heart of university life. It forms the fundamental basis for disseminating knowledge and fostering independent thinking of students and staff members; it also allows for self-governance and academic job security to ensure independence.2 Yet, a recent report3 by the University and College Union (UCU) in the United Kingdom (UK) highlights that the major elements of academic freedom (freedom for teaching and research, autonomy, shared governance, and employment protection) are in decline. In certain countries, scholars and students are frequently persecuted, arrested, or tortured for their academic work, research, and publications; in others, the threats to academic freedom are more subtle, often driven by market dynamics and the increase of a corporate governance model of the university.
The phenomenon of the “internationalization” of universities—the increasing quantity and quality of international partnerships and transnational ties in research, education, and associated activities—is a broadly positive force. But these partnerships often link places where academics suffer direct and severe threats to places where universities are increasingly reliant on income from foreign sources. According to Scholars at Risk (SAR), there has been an increase of academic persecution around the world: between September 2018 and August 2019, there were 324 attacks on higher-education communities in 56 countries.4 In parallel, an erosion of universities’ financial and institutional autonomy has been recorded in top liberal democracies.5 The need for funding has forced many major universities to collaborate with governments in authoritarian states, whose policies delimit the space for freedom of expression and thinking by controlling what is taught, researched, and discussed at university campuses.6
The internationalization of the university presents an opportunity for authoritarian states to assert their influence across borders. Authoritarian influencing7 in universities constitutes an attempt to shape their research and teaching agendas and thus threatens the academic integrity of the institution. Transnational repression in this context occurs when individuals—typically but not exclusively students or faculty from an authoritarian state—are subject to repressive measures against their academic freedom and wider human rights. Drawing on a survey of UK-based Area Studies academics,8 this paper aims to shed light on how both of these processes can and do take place in UK universities as a result of international collaboration with authoritarian governments. We explore four areas of internationalization that are vulnerable to authoritarian influencing and/or transnational repression: international partnerships and funding; expatriate students and faculty; fieldwork; and overseas campuses. Our findings suggest a fraught environment where authoritarian influencing and transnational repression combine with market dynamics and national security responses to curtail academic freedom.
- 1The UK University and College Union’s statement on academic freedom outlines five rights: freedom in teaching and discussion; freedom in carrying out research without commercial or political interference; freedom to disseminate and publish one’s research findings; freedom from institutional censorship, including the right to express one’s opinion publicly about the institution or the education system in which one works; and, freedom to participate in professional and representative academic bodies, including trade unions.
- 2See: Terence Karran and Lucy Mallinson, “Academic Freedom in the U.K.: Legal and Normative Protection in a Comparative Context,” Report for the University and College Union, May 2017, https://www.ucu.org.uk/media/8614/Academic-Freedom-in-the-UK-Legal-and-….
- 3Terence Karran and Lucy Mallinson, “Academic Freedom in the U.K.: Legal and Normative Protection in a Comparative Context,” Report for the University and College Union, May 2017, https://www.ucu.org.uk/media/8614/Academic-Freedom-in-the-UK-Legal-and-….
- 4Scholars at Risk, “Free to Think 2019,” Academic Freedom Monitoring Project, November 2019, https://www.scholarsatrisk.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Scholars-at-R….
- 5Scholars at Risk, “Obstacles to Excellence: Academic Freedom & China’s Quest for World-Class Universities,” Academic Freedom Monitoring Project, September 2019, https://www.scholarsatrisk.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Scholars-at-R….
- 6Kevin Kinser, “On global campuses, academic freedom has its limits,” The Conversation, October 16, 2015, https://theconversation.com/on-global-campuses-academic-freedom-has-its….
- 7Thorsten Benner, “An Era of Authoritarian Influence?”, Global Public Policy Institute, September 15, 2017, https://www.gppi.net/2017/09/15/an-era-of-authoritarian-influence.
- 8The survey was the first stage of a wider study. We asked 28 closed- and open-ended questions (18 questions and 10 sub-questions) of a small and targeted population of about one hundred academics working in Area Studies in the UK. We received 40 responses. The findings reported here have also informed the design of a full survey of the much larger population of all UK university-based social scientists in the second stage of the study, to be conducted in 2020–21.
The internationalization of the university presents an opportunity for authoritarian states to assert their influence across borders
International partnerships and funding
Concern regarding internationalization and academic freedom involves pressure from foreign governments, upon whose funding UK universities may depend via overseas students or research partnerships. In recent years, the gradual withdrawal of core state funding in higher education has driven UK universities to compete in the global market for donations and international students’ fees. Since 2010, research funding in the UK has fallen by 12.8 percent.1 At the same time, funding from foreign sources has increased in importance. A significant share of this funding originates from authoritarian states.
The UK’s leading universities have accepted sponsorship from authoritarian regimes accused of human rights violations and links to terrorism, with hundreds of millions of pounds funneled into British higher-education institutions to establish research centers and other kinds of partnerships.2 Such actions, which may first occur as benign, might have an outward-facing political agenda to gain international respectability. More importantly, they represent new mechanisms for authoritarian regimes to influence the structures of research and be recognized, informally and internationally, as legitimate.
The universities that are most vulnerable to such mechanisms are those relying most heavily on foreign income sources. In 2011, the London School of Economics (LSE) infamously accepted a £1.5 million donation3 from a charity run by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Meanwhile, Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammad al-Qasimi, the ruler of Sharjah—one of the most conservative emirates in the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—has given more than £8 million to the University of Exeter over the course of twenty years.4 In 2012, the University of Cambridge received a £3.7 million donation to establish a professorship for Chinese development studies, funded by a charity controlled by China’s former prime minister Wen Jiabao.5
- 1Sally Weale, “Tuition fees cut could be devastating for universities, say peers,” The Guardian, August 7, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/aug/08/tuition-fees-cut-coul….
- 2Foreign Affairs Committee, “Oral evidence: Autocracies and UK Foreign Policy, HC 109,” House of Commons, October 22, 2019, http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidenc….
- 3Jeevan Vasagar, “Gaddafi donation to LSE may have come from bribes, inquiry finds,” The Guardian, November 30, 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2011/nov/30/gaddafi-donation-lse-….
- 4Camilla Turner and Harry Yorke, “Exclusive: MPs demand British universities stop accepting donations from dictatorships,” The Telegraph, August 13, 2017, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/2017/08/12/exclusive-universities….
- 5Camilla Turner and Harry Yorke, “Exclusive: MPs demand British universities stop accepting donations from dictatorships,” The Telegraph, August 13, 2017, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/2017/08/12/exclusive-universities….
The internationalization of higher education has enabled authoritarian states to effectively “transnationalize” everyday forms of censorship and political repression to students and faculty both at home and abroad.
Such one-off donations, often for capital projects, garner headlines. However, a less visible but more prevalent form of authoritarian influencing occurs through state scholarship programs for study and faculty visits. These are important to universities as they support students paying fees at the lucrative international fee level. At present, UK universities host more than 100,000 Chinese students, which represent an important part of universities’ revenue streams.1 Chinese authorities, for instance, have threatened to withhold Chinese students from the University of Oxford in an unsuccessful bid to force the school’s chancellor, Chris Patten, to cancel a visit to Hong Kong.2
The risks associated with this double financial dependence are multiple. As summarized by one of our survey respondents, “these partnerships have financial implications; as a result, there is an incentive to keep them in place, especially where institutions struggle with other sources of funding.” Another respondent remarked that worries about the loss of income from fees paid by foreign students push universities to “turn a blind eye” towards the behavior of authoritarian regimes, while also encouraging staff members to avoid sensitive topics—which occurs either overtly (that is, being told to avoid certain themes) or through more subtle “hints” that result in self-censorship. While there are few examples of overt censorship, the evidence that self-censorship is increasingly widespread indicates that academic freedom is at risk. Without a transparent system of recording donations and allowing university faculty and students to hold the institution to account, the integrity of the university can be called into question.
- 1Camilla Cavendish, “British universities must stand up to Chinese pressure,” Financial Times, November 8, 2019, https://www.ft.com/content/df27ad90-017d-11ea-b7bc-f3fa4e77dd47.
- 2Camilla Cavendish, “British universities must stand up to Chinese pressure,” Financial Times, November 8, 2019, https://www.ft.com/content/df27ad90-017d-11ea-b7bc-f3fa4e77dd47.
Expatriate students and faculty
The students and faculty on state scholarship programs, such as Kazakhstan’s Bolashak program, are routinely subject to surveillance by their home government security services and often exercise self-censorship accordingly.1 Unless academic freedom is explicitly protected in these arrangements, collaborations with authoritarian regimes end up curtailing the freedom of academic staff and students to express their views on politically and socially sensitive topics, as well as their freedom to teach and conduct research on topics that are thought to be at odds with the donors’ visions. Violations often result in self-censorship, suspensions, or even, in rare cases, the loss of jobs.
Sponsorships by foreign regimes create obligations that may encourage UK-based academics to steer their research agenda to avoid controversies with their donors. For example, a report published by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee2 found that Chinese embassies put pressure on faculty members to remove critics of the Beijing government from academic events or to limit speech on politically sensitive topics such as the Hong Kong protests.3 In other instances, scholars and foreign students suffer from restrictions in the production of academic conduct and content, with sometimes vicious retaliations. There have been cases of students experiencing surveillance, intimidation, and coercive pressure on relatives back home, or even legal action taken by authorities to persecute academics and critics of the government’s policies.4 In 2016, Turkey launched criminal prosecutions against academics, including foreign scholars based at UK institutions, who signed a petition called “Academics for Peace” criticizing5 the military crackdown on Kurdish rebels in southeastern Turkey. One of our respondents recounted their experience after signing this petition: “Along with 1,128 academics, we were accused of supporting terrorism and put on trial. . . . My [UK] department was afraid about losing their Turkish partnerships after the criminalization of peace activism in Turkey. I have been asked not to write on the Kurdish question for a while.”
Our exploratory survey suggests that these forms of direct threats to foreign faculty and students are far more widespread than has been reported. The spectrum of countries mentioned by respondents also goes beyond what we would normally think of fully fledged authoritarian states. It includes “very strong pressure placed on UK institutions by Israeli embassies and proxies”; cases of Russian co-authors pulling out of conference presentations “out of fears of repercussion from [their] home university”; Saudi Arabian students asked “to report to their embassy once a month”; and China’s surveillance of student societies, which “influences students’ choices of dissertation topics away from controversial ones.” This attitude of Chinese students is, no doubt, influenced by real threats, such as the interference of the Chinese embassy in the UK (which “instructed some Chinese students in response to criticism of the Chinese government treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang”) and even by that of the secret services (for example, a China-based PhD student warned that there would be “government spies in the audience to monitor what he was saying” at a conference in the UK).
However, more common is an indirect threat to academic freedom in the form of self-censorship. One academic stated that he has “observed self-censorship among state-funded Turkish students . . . who avoided making critical comments about their country’s politics in front of their Turkish peers and were worried about their MA dissertations being read by their funding institution or others in their country of origin.” Students from China, too, were said to be “clearly worried that they would be reported on by other Chinese students.” Sometimes, these faculty would themselves indicate the need to tone down criticism of what is taught in the classroom, as per this testimony: “I have censored in classes with Chinese students as I have received difficult pressure from them not to assign anything critical of China.”
- 1Adele Del Sordi, “Sponsoring student mobility for development and authoritarian stability: Kazakhstan’s Bolashak programme,” Globalizations 15, no. 2, December 2018, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14747731.2017.1403780.
- 2Foreign Affairs Committee, “A cautious embrace: defending democracy in an age of autocracies,” House of Commons, November 5, 2019, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201919/cmselect/cmfaff/109/1090….
- 3“Durham students warned by Chinese Embassy not to say anything negative,” The Northern Echo, December 5, 2014, https://www.thenorthernecho.co.uk/news/11649218.durham-students-warned-….
- 4Adele Del Sordi, “Sponsoring student mobility for development and authoritarian stability: Kazakhstan’s Bolashak programme,” Globalizations 15, no. 2, December 2018, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14747731.2017.1403780.
- 5Elizabeth Redden, “Peace Petition Signatories Face Continued Prosecutions,” Inside Higher Ed, July 1, 2019, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/07/01/about-700-academics-have….
Restrictions on academic freedom are also found in the practice of research and data collection. This may take the form of depriving academic critics of their personal liberty and individual freedoms or banning those scholarly activities that are not aligned with the regime’s vision. Scholars have been attacked, killed, detained, or prosecuted conducting fieldwork. In May 2018, Matthew Hedges, a British doctoral student from Durham University, who was in the UAE for a two-week research trip, was arrested at Dubai International Airport on suspicion of spying on behalf of the British government.1 In November, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. Hedges was later granted clemency and released. In a similar vein, in August 2019, Iranian authorities detained Kameel Ahmady, a dual Iranian-British citizen and anthropologist who researched female genital mutilation and child marriage, in apparent retaliation for his scholarly work.2 These cases closely mirror the killing of the Italian Cambridge University doctoral student Giulio Regeni, who had traveled to Cairo in 2016 to do research on Egyptian trade unions—a politically sensitive subject in the country. His body was discovered in a ditch on February 3, 2016, with signs of torture.3 Egyptian security forces are suspected of being responsible for his disappearance and murder.
Many other cases of restriction of liberties or even temporary detention go unreported due to fear of professional and personal repercussions, and one such case was reported to us confidentially in our survey. Another respondent spoke of “numerous instances when international PhD students were called by phone (or even summoned) by the police of their country, and asked to stop asking questions on a certain topic.” Such forms of direct but low-level interference are not the sole purview of authoritarian states but can be found in the security responses of the UK authorities. One noted that “British intelligence, specifically MI5, asked me to secretly debrief students returning from China about their Chinese contacts,” while others mentioned “Home Office pressure regarding activism—perhaps not explicit pressure but investigation into [our] activities.” However, it is encouraging that none of our respondents reported any pressure by UK universities in their fieldwork abroad beyond that of meeting the standard university ethics procedures.
Much more commonplace than these high-profile cases is the fact that a large part of the world remains a politically unfree environment for academic research, a phenomenon increasingly discussed in the academic literature on fieldwork in practice.4 Scholars working on sensitive topics are often forced to limit the scope of their investigations due to the difficulty of obtaining visas or the risk of endangering their fieldwork contacts. While conducting fieldwork, foreign academics work with local research assistants, translators, and other academic partners. However, some governments’ formal and informal restrictions may make this dangerous or impossible. Local scholars are often subject to state surveillance and pressure from authorities.5
UK-based scholars whose passports offer them a degree of protection are also routinely subject to such measures. One of our survey respondents reported conducting fieldwork in both Western Sahara (a disputed territory between the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic and neighboring Morocco) and Morocco. While the pushback in Western Sahara—an unrecognized state—was more overt (through “visible following and surveillance, threatening anonymous calls, theft of mp3 player from luggage”), the coercion was more subtle and difficult to prove in Morocco proper (including “likely social media surveillance, non-responsiveness of formerly consolidated contacts which suggests some form of blacklisting”). As a result of such actions, international partnerships are often curtailed or reshaped due to fears of government retaliation.
- 1“Matthew Hedges: Academic 'psychologically tortured' in UAE jail,” BBC News, December 5, 2018, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tyne-46451590.
- 2“Kameel Ahmady: British-Iranian academic 'arrested in Iran,'” BBC News, August 14, 2019, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-49341885.
- 3Ruth Michaelson and Lorenzo Tondo, “Giulio Regeni: hopes rest on Italian inquiry on fourth anniversary of death,” The Guardian, February 3, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/03/giulio-regeni-hopes-rest-….
- 4For example: Berit Bliesemann de Guevara Morten Bøås, eds., Doing Fieldwork in Areas of International Intervention: A Guide to Research in Violent and Closed Contexts, Bristol: Bristol University Press, 2020, https://bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/doing-fieldwork-in-areas-of-intern….
- 5Kirsten Roberts Lyer and Aron Suba, “Closing Academic Space: Repressive State Practices in Legislative, Regulatory and Other Restrictions on Higher Education Institutions,” International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL), March 2019, https://www.icnl.org/wp-content/uploads/Uni-restrictions-rpt-final-Marc….
The internationalization and commercialization of universities has increased the outsourcing of higher education abroad. A positive trend in itself, the opening of campuses overseas has raised a number of controversies due to the choice of host countries, which have oftentimes coincided with states oppressing civil liberties and human rights. According to data compiled by the Cross-Border Education Research Team (C-BERT),1 as of 2017, most UK overseas campuses are based in China (9), in Malaysia (6), and in Middle Eastern countries (11). The establishment of these branches is, in the majority of cases, financially subsidized by the foreign government. Yet, sometimes this support comes with restrictions on subjects to be taught or researched.
In most cases, the university selects a range of topics to be taught that are not controversial, posing no challenge to the domestic political or social order. As noted by John Nagle, Reader in Sociology at the University of Aberdeen, who spent four months as a visiting professor at the UAE’s national university: “Rather than encouraging critical thinking, education in the UAE rests on a technocratic logic. Education is supposed to help its society resolve tricky social problems and maintain the status quo.”2 In 2018, the University of Nottingham Ningbo China, the first joint-venture university in China, removed a foreign academic from its management board for being critical of Communist Party–backed initiatives.3
These examples demonstrate that the outsourcing of higher education to campuses in authoritarian states is typically accompanied by a relaxation of standards of academic freedom compared to the home university. In the words of one of our survey respondents:
Too often partnerships between UK higher institutions and overseas partners involve institutions with strong ties to authoritarian governments and contribute to providing them with international legitimacy. If this ends up limiting the kind of topics or perspectives that can be discussed in collaborative research and teaching, or if it influences the appointment or treatment of staff, then of course this is very problematic. There must be alternative ways to support internationalisation and academic collaboration that do not make us complicit with repressive regimes.
- 1Cross-Border Education Research Team, “C-BERT Branch Campus Listing,” Data originally collected by Kevin Kinser and Jason E. Lane, January 20, 2017, http://cbert.org/resources-data/branch-campus/.
- 2John Nagle, “Academic freedom: I spent four months at UAE’s national university – this is what I found,” The Conversation, October 22, 2018, https://theconversation.com/academic-freedom-i-spent-four-months-at-uae….
- 3Emily Feng, “China tightens party control of foreign university ventures,” Financial Times, July 1, 2018, https://www.ft.com/content/4b885540-7b6d-11e8-8e67-1e1a0846c475.
As the observations above demonstrate, the internationalization of higher education has enabled authoritarian states to effectively “transnationalize” everyday forms of censorship and political repression to students and faculty both at home and abroad. Many of these forms of influence appear to be indirect, in that they derive from fear of direct measures against oneself or one’s family. These include fear of the loss of the right to travel, of the right to host students, or of the likelihood of receiving donations. Evidence remains scattered, and further research on this under-studied topic is ongoing by the authors.
However, what is clear is the value for an authoritarian regime to exercise direct and indirect influence outside its national territories. The stability of the regime remains the first concern of autocrats. Academic freedom, and therefore the possibility of intellectual dissent, represent challenges to the authoritarian structure. Hence, ideas and movements that might compromise the regime, within the nation state as well as abroad, are subject to repression. According to such logic, the state must constantly reaffirm its dominant position by penetrating spaces of critical thinking within and beyond its territorial borders.
The risk to academic freedom, however, is not solely from such states. As remarked by several of our UK respondents, risks “emanate mostly from within, rather than from without”. They are created and enhanced by market mechanisms that generate unregulated competition between universities over the funding they offer. Furthermore, the foreign policy establishments of some governments have come to identify certain research as a security threat and have begun to impose limits on international partnerships.1 Neither market forces nor a security-based approach is likely to help protect academic freedom from transnational repression and authoritarian influencing; more likely, they will make matters worse.
What can be more effective is the establishment of a code of conduct – on foreign donations and campuses, on protecting expatriate students and faculty, and on training and support for fieldworkers – to protect academic freedom in the context of internationalization. Ultimately, adoption of these common standards and measures must be transparent, allowing for a relationship of accountability between university leaders and their students and staff.
About the authors:
Tena Prelec is a Research Fellow in the Department of Politics and International Relations (DPIR) at the University of Oxford; Saipira Furstenberg is a Research Associate in the Politics Department at the University of Exeter; John Heathershaw is Professor of International Relations in the Politics Department at the University of Exeter.
- 1The U.S. has begun to dramatically restrict links with China and arrested a number of U.S. academics, while Australia has introduced stronger new guidelines. See: The University Foreign Interference Taskforce, “Guidelines to counter foreign interference in the Australian university sector,” Department of Skills, Education, and Employment, November 2019, https://www.education.gov.au/ufit.
This essay is a part of the collection entitled "Perspectives on “Everyday” Transnational Repression in an Age of Globalization." Download the complete PDF for the full collection.