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The UK’s internationalised universities and the protection of academic freedom

Article by Prof. John Heathershaw, Dr Saipira Furstenberg, and Dr Tena Prelec

September 29, 2020

The UK’s internationalised universities and the protection of academic freedom

The higher education sector is one of the UK’s strengths, which is sometimes presented as part of British soft power. In fact, our universities are increasingly international institutions whose teaching and research, personnel, funding, and even campuses are global. Universities have their own ‘foreign policies’ where they decide with whom to cooperate and trade, where their members may travel, and so on. However, these activities rest on the protection of the academic freedom which forms the fundamental basis for disseminating knowledge and fostering independent thinking of students and staff members, and requires self-governance and academic job security to ensure this independence.[1]


The phenomenon of the ‘internationalisation’ of universities is a broadly positive force for UK institutions. But these partnerships make them increasingly reliant on income from state sponsors and donors in countries where academic freedom is unknown or severely curtailed. 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.[2] In parallel, an erosion of universities’ financial and institutional autonomy has been recorded in liberal democracies.[3] 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 on university campuses and in online partnerships.[4]


The internationalisation of the university presents an opportunity for authoritarian states to assert their influence across borders. Authoritarian influencing in universities constitutes an attempt to shape their research and teaching agendas and thus threatens the academic integrity of the institution.[5] 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. There are four areas of internationalisation 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 put academic freedom at risk.


International partnerships and funding

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.[6] 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 recognised, 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 donation from a charity run by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9]


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.[10] 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.[11] While there are few examples of overt censorship, there are academic testimonies that self-censorship is increasingly widespread.[12] 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.


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.[13] 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 state sponsors’ visions.


Sponsorships by foreign regimes create obligations that may encourage UK-based academics and students to steer their research agenda to avoid controversies with their donors. 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 the Israeli embassy”; 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.”[14]


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 faculties 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.”[15]


Fieldwork and partnership with foreign researchers

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, with the recent cases of the long-term detention and maltreatment of Durham’s Matthew Hedges and the killing of Cambridge’s Giulio Regeni garnering worldwide attention.[16]


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.[17] 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, local partners are often subject to far greater state surveillance and pressure from authorities.[18]


The responses of the UK security services may be counter-productive where they are treat these issues as matters of security. One academic noted that “British intelligence, specifically MI5, asked me to secretly debrief students returning from China about their Chinese contacts,” while another mentioned “Home Office pressure regarding activism—perhaps not explicit pressure but investigation into [our] activities.”[19] Such actions merely feed the perception that UK-based students and staff are agents of the British state.


Overseas campuses

The internationalisation and commercialisation of universities has increased the outsourcing of higher education abroad. 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), as of 2017, most UK overseas campuses are based in China (9), in Malaysia (6), and in Middle Eastern countries (11).[20] The establishment of these branches is, in the majority of cases, financially subsidised 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.”[21]



The internationalisation of higher education has enabled authoritarian states to exert new forms of influence and effectively ‘transnationalise’ 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 self-censorship or risk management. These include the risk 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.


The risk to academic freedom, however, is not solely from such states. These risks are enhanced by market mechanisms that generate unregulated competition between universities over the funding they offer and national security responses from democracies, which directly restrict academic freedom.[22] Neither market forces nor a security-based approach is likely to help protect academic freedom from transnational repression and authoritarian influencing.


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 – such as the draft proposed by the Academic Freedom and Internationalisation Working Group. Ultimately, adoption of such common standards and measures must be transparent, allowing for a relationship of accountability between university leaders and their students and staff.


This is article is a revised and abbreviated version of “The Internationalization of Universities and the Repression of Academic Freedom”, Freedom House, 2020,


John Heathershaw is Professor of International Relations at the University of Exeter and Principal Investigator of the DfID-Global Integrity Anti-Corruption Evidence project “Testing and evidencing compliance with beneficial ownership checks”.

Saipira Furstenberg is a Research Associate in the Politics Department at the University of Exeter.

Tena Prelec is a Research Fellow in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford as part of the project “Testing and evidencing compliance with beneficial ownership checks”.


Image by Antoine Taveneaux  under (CC).

[1] The 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.

[2] Scholars at Risk, Academic Freedom Monitoring Project, Free to Think, November 2019,

[3] Scholars at Risk, Academic Freedom Monitoring Project, Academic Freedom & China’s Quest for World-Class Universities, September 2019,

[4] Kevin Kinser, Global campuses, academic freedom has its limits, The Conservation, October 2015,

[5] Thorsten Benner, An Era of Authoritarian Influence, GPPI, September 2017,

[6] Foreign Affairs Committee, Oral evience: Autocracies and UK Foreign Policy, HC 109, House of Commons, October 2019,

[7] Jeevan Vasagar, Gaddafi donation to LSE may have come from bribes, inquiry finds, The Guardian, November 2011,

[8] Exclusive: MPs demand British universities stop accepting donations from dictatorships, The Telegraph, August 2017,

[9] Ibid.

[10] British universities must stand up to Chinese pressure, Financial Times, November 2019,

[11] Ibid.

[12] Saipira Furstenberg, Tena Prelec, and John Heathershaw, The Internationalization of Universities and the Repression of Academic Freedom, Freedom House, 2020,

[13] Adele Del Sordi, “Sponsoring student mobility for development and authoritarian stability: Kazakhstan’s Bolashak programme,” Globalizations 15, no. 2 (2018).

[14] Saipira Furstenberg, Tena Prelec, and John Heathershaw, The Internationalization of Universities and the Repression of Academic Freedom, Freedom House, 2020,

[15] Saipira Furstenberg, Tena Prelec, and John Heathershaw, The Internationalization of Universities and the Repression of Academic Freedom, Freedom House, 2020,

[16] Emma Snaith, Matthew Hedges: British academic jailed by UAE for ‘spying’ says government did not do enough to help him, The Independent, May 2019,; Stephanie Kirchgaessner and Ruth Michaelson, Cambridge University professor at centre of row over Giulio Regeni death, The Guardian, January 2018,

[17] For example, Berit Bliesemann de Guevara and Morten Boas, Doing Fieldwork in Areas of International Intervention: A Guide to Research in Violent and Closed Contexts, Bristol University Press, June 2020,

[18] Kirsten Roberts Lyer and Aron Suba, Closing Academic Space, ICNL, March 2019,

[19] Saipira Furstenberg, Tena Prelec, and John Heathershaw, The Internationalization of Universities and the Repression of Academic Freedom, Freedom House, 2020,

[20] Cross-Border Education Research Team, A Robust Hub for Cross-Border Education,

[21] Academic freedom: I spent four months at UAE’s national university – this what I found, The Conversation, October 2018,

[22] The US has begun to dramatically restrict links with China and arrested a number of U.S. academics, while Australia has introduced stronger new guidelines; The University Foreign Interference Taskforce – Guidelines to counter foreign interference in the Australian university sector, Australian Government,

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