British universities have been accused of “censorship” for agreeing to comply with Chinese internet censorship to offer remote courses to international students.
The courses are offered through software that allows Chinese students who would normally study in the UK to continue their studies remotely.
However, the software has to comply with strict Chinese internet firewalls. This means students are limited to only course material that has been approved by Beijing.
The software is developed by JISC, a digital learning not-for-profit. The pilot programme involves King’s College London, Queen Mary, York University and Southampton University.
JISC’s software, which has been built with Chinese technology giant Alibaba, provides course materials to students in China. A spokesperson said traffic has to travel through “three international gateways” and will “only provide access to learning materials that are part of the curriculum specified by the UK institution”.
These are placed on an “allow” list of course materials. The spokesperson added “none of these links have been blocked”.
A Universities UK spokesperson said academic freedom was of “utmost importance” adding it was not aware of any alteration to course content to comply with local laws.
The BBC first reported universities would by complying with Chinese internet rules.
China sceptics warned Britain’s universities could be conducting self-censorship by only allowing access to certain course approved materials to comply with local internet law.
Matthew Henderson, a former diplomat and Asia director at the Henry Jackson Society, said: “This is censorship by Britain of what students get to read.”
He added universities had for years been under pressure to accept high levels of overseas students, allowing them to charge higher fees, and this had created a “huge dependency” on China.
Neil O’Brien, a Conservative MP and member of the China Research Group, said: “This is the latest sign of the way UK universities are being changed by their dependence on Chinese students. The government needs to start collecting data on Chinese firms investments into our universities and be clear about the values we won't compromise.”
Anthony Glees, a professor at the University of Buckingham, said the decision to limit the kind of materials students could access undermined “the fundamental reason overseas students… might wish to study in the UK. To have access to the academic freedoms that ought to allow UK academics to tell it how it is.”
He added: “If you simply make UK universities an extension of what students might learn in the People’s Republic of China, what would be the academic and intellectual point in coming to study in the UK?”
A spokesperson for Universities UK, which represents UK institutions, said the project was run by JSIC.
The spokesperson said: “Academic freedom and institutional autonomy is of the utmost importance to us. We are not aware of any instances when course content has been altered. This scheme is intended to ensure that Chinese students, learning remotely during the pandemic, can access course materials and are able to continue their studies.”
A similar system has already been deployed by a number of Australian universities.
In a separate report into higher education’s relationship with China, academics warned fears of universities offending China had risen dramatically in recent years. China currently sends more than 120,000 students to the UK each year, although universities fear these numbers will collapse in September due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In a paper published by the Higher Education Policy Institute, Professor Kerry Brown, of Kings College London, said that “pre-emptive self-censorship” by academics was a growing problem.