Students 'to attend seminars anonymously in free speech crisis'

British students may be forced to attend seminars and submit their coursework anonymously to protect foreign peers from freedom of speech laws in their home nations

  • Universities UK has suggested that British students should attend seminars and submit coursework without revealing their identities
  • Guidance has been drawn up to protect foreign peers who could be targeted by governments which apply freedom of speech laws beyond their borders
  • Though proposals don’t name any country, it comes after MPs warned of Chinese interference on UK university campuses in damning report 

British students may be forced to attend university seminars without revealing their identities to protect their foreign peers from freedom of speech laws in their home nations.

Guidance from Universities UK (UUK) also suggests that students may submit coursework anonymously to prevent people from being targeted by countries which apply laws beyond their borders.

Extraterritorial jurisdiction could have a ‘potentially chilling’ effect on campus activities in the UK, the organisation representing vice-chancellors added.

The guidance from UUK says online courses, which have come the norm during the coronavirus pandemic, could be recorded and therefore universities will need to carefully consider how to protect students and staff.

‘Academics and students may feel less able to participate in academic debate or progress research on certain topics that may be deemed sensitive by, and potentially subject to legal restrictions in, another nation state,’ it states.

‘Institutions could also take steps to protect students by introducing the Chatham House rule to seminars or other oral discussions, and otherwise introducing measures that allow students to submit coursework anonymously.’

British students may be forced to attend university seminars without revealing their identities to protect their foreign peers from freedom of speech laws in their home nations (stock)

Chatham House would forbid anyone inside the room from disclosing the source of what was said but critics have questioned its effectiveness.

Though the guidance does not mention any country by name, it comes after a report by MPs last year warned of China’s interference on UK campuses.

The Foreign Affairs Committee report, published in November, claimed that UK universities were failing to recognise autocracies’ influence on academic freedom in the country.

When asked why UUK’s guidance doesn’t specifically name China, a spokesman told MailOnline that risks are evolving and can come from any country.

The guidance also states: ‘The vast majority of international collaborations are beneficial to the UK, but like every activity, there are some risks involved and over the years these risks have become more dynamic and complex.

‘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.

‘These values are rooted in the UK’s commitment to democracy and the rule of law. It is vital that universities are aware of these risks and have proper processes in place to protect themselves, their people and their reputations.’

Professor Sir Peter Gregson, vice-chancellor of Cranfield University and chairman of the UUK taskforce which drafted the guidance, said: ‘These guidelines will help universities protect their students and staff and ensure we are able to pursue and develop secure and sustainable partnerships across the world. 

‘While every university has mechanisms in place to handle the risks associated with these partnerships, the threats posed are growing in number and complexity and our institutions must remain vigilant and continue to develop their own understanding and practices.’

Though the guidance does not mention any country by name, it comes after a report by MPs last year warned of China’s interference on UK campuses (pictured, President Xi Jinping)

The Foreign Affairs Committee last year warned of the threat to academic freedom in the UK posed by foreign governments. Its damning report blasted the UK Governments’s ‘non-existent’ role in ‘advising universities on the potential threats’.

MPs suggested that the Foreign Office’s focus on protecting universities from intellectual property theft and risks arising from joint-research projects is ‘not enough’ to protect academic freedom.

They added that university research agendas, curricula and ‘attempts to limit the activities of UK university campuses’ could be shaped by ‘other types of interference such as financial, political or diplomatic pressure’.

The report said the Committee had heard ‘alarming evidence about the extent of Chinese influence on the campuses of UK universities’.

Dr Catherine Owen of the University of Exeter had noted that ‘China’s internationalising trend in higher education has been accompanied by domestic attempts to curb the influence of educational norms and values associated with the West’.

Professor Christopher Hughes of the LSE had observed Chinese students in London engaged in activities that undermine Hong Kong protestors and Chinese Confucius Institute officials confiscating papers which mention Taiwan at an academic conference.

And SOAS Professor Steve Tsang had told how a pro-vice chancellor at an unnamed Russell Group university ‘deplatformed’ a speaker critical of the Chinese Government after he was ‘spoken to by someone in the Chinese Embassy’.

He added: ‘I am also aware of a vice-chancellor again under pressure from the Chinese embassy asking one of his senior academics not to make political comments on China at a specified period of time.’

MI5 boss Ken McCallum said Russia currently causes ‘most aggravation’ to UK security services

It comes after the boss of MI5 revealed that Russia causes the ‘most aggravation’ to the UK’s security services but warned it is China which represents the biggest long term threat.

Director general Ken McCallum said as of now it is activity from the Kremlin which keeps British spies the busiest when it comes to countering attempted interference from foreign powers.

But he said that while Moscow provides ‘bursts of bad weather’ Beijing is in the process of ‘changing the climate’. 

Mr McCallum also warned the coronavirus crisis has prompted terrorists to hunt for new targets because there are now far fewer crowded places than there were before the pandemic hit. 

He said the security services have been ‘rapidly adapting’ how they work in recent months to combat new threats because ‘big shifts in everyone’s lives’ mean there have also been ‘shifts in how our adversaries are operating’.  

Speaking to reporters this morning for the first time since taking on the top role in April, Mr McCallum gave a frank assessment of the threats facing the UK. 

‘If the question is which country’s intelligence services cause the most aggravation to the UK in October 2020, the answer is Russia,’ he said.

‘If on the other hand the question is which state will be shaping the world across the next decade, presenting big opportunities and big challenges for the UK, the answer is China.

‘You might think in terms of the Russian intelligence services providing bursts of bad weather while China is changing the climate.’ 

Mr McCallum said the threats being countered by MI5 were no longer ‘just about spies’ or ‘stealing state secrets’ with the security services also facing up to the prospect of assassination attempts and outside interference in UK democracy. 

‘These risks have always been sharp in different ways but right now we see a very broad change and one of the big drivers for that is globalisation itself and the increasing reach of the internet and technology which affects us all in our joined up world,’ he said. 

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