Plan to force UK universities to declare foreign funding

English universities will be required to report financial arrangements with individuals and organizations overseas or face fines, under proposed laws to protect free speech.

The government will table amendments to the Free Speech Bill on Monday that require universities to share details of foreign funding from specified countries, with potential – as yet unspecified – fines for non-compliance or if there is a perceived risk to academic freedom.

The addition follows scrutiny of funding for UK universities from countries like China, and adds “legitimate concerns about the influence of foreign money” to the scope of the legislation which the government says will protect the freedom of expression.

“It is right that we take further steps to protect our universities from undue foreign influences which run counter to British values,” said Michelle Donelan, Minister for Further and Further Education.

“For decades, students have traveled thousands of miles around the world to study here because of our values ​​of free speech and academic freedom.”

The amendment is part of a series of bills that call on universities to actively promote freedom of expression. Applications for a new director to oversee policy for the Office for Students, which regulates universities, will also open on Monday.

The Department for Education said the legislation responds to a “chilling effect” where individuals feel unable to voice their opinions. However, universities have warned that new demands on universities must be “proportionate”.

Responding to the foreign institutions amendment, Universities UK, which represents the sector, said academic freedom was “at the heart of the work of universities”, but urged the government to take a “risk-based” approach.

“We are still seeking clarification from the government on issues such as the protection of commercially sensitive information, reporting thresholds and the definition of key terms in the amendment,” he said.

Over the past year, UUK and some universities have introduced their own processes or guidance to address concerns that outside influences may impede freedom of expression.

The University of Cambridge announced last year that it would assess all international agreements to ensure the principles of academic freedom, following criticism over links between senior executives and Huawei, a telecommunications company closely linked to the Chinese state.

A report released last year by former universities minister Lord Jo Johnson warned that rapid growth in joint research and growing numbers of Chinese students had created a “strategic dependency” on Chinese partnerships.

Johnson said the legislation ignored the “greater concentration of risk”, which he said was rooted in financial exposure to Chinese students.

“The most useful amendment would be for the government to require the Student Council to monitor international student recruitment trends and impose regulatory conditions on insufficiently diverse universities,” he said.

Under the proposed legislation, universities and student unions will both provide information to the OfS, which will include a summary of the information in its annual report.

It is proposed that they will have to declare payments over £75,000 from any overseas country except those listed in the University Technology Endorsement Scheme, which includes Allies of NATO and the EU.

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