UK proposes crackdown on foreign security risks to university sector

UK proposes crackdown on foreign security risks to university sector

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UK university vice-chancellors will be summoned for a briefing from the intelligence agencies on hostile states targeting British academia, as the government proposes a crackdown on security risks facing the sector.

Oliver Dowden, deputy prime minister, on Thursday said the government would examine new curbs to protect sensitive technology developed in UK universities from being transferred to overseas competitors such as China.

Ministers will also consider measures to prevent British institutions becoming too dependent on foreign investment, following a Whitehall review into security threats to UK academia.

In a speech at the Chatham House think-tank in London, Dowden warned that “the cutting-edge development in sensitive technologies” taking place at UK universities had “the potential to become a chink in our armoury”. 

He said the government planned to “look at who has access to research frontiers in the most sensitive disciplines”, raised the prospect of a new vetting regime for international academics and said university vice-chancellors would soon be invited to Whitehall for a security briefing.

More funding may also be channelled towards the Research Collaboration Advice Team, a government unit that provides advice to universities on the national security risks linked to international research, he said.

Dowden also said the government would “ensure that some universities’ reliance on foreign funding does not become a dependency by which they can be influenced, exploited, or even coerced”. 

Ministers would examine how the National Security and Investment Act and export controls apply to universities and intellectual property, he said, adding that more transparency may be needed around university funding sources.

Officials have long harboured specific concerns about UK scientific research in some of the most sensitive areas being threatened by Beijing state surveillance. China is the “number one state-based threat to our economic security”, Dowden said.

Last month the Financial Times reported that academics at Imperial College London had worked with scientists at Chinese institutions linked to Beijing’s armed forces and defence sector on research with potential military applications.

The Chinese embassy in London said in response that criticism of joint UK-China research was “baseless” and driven by “ideological bias”, adding: “Exchanges and co-operation between Chinese and British universities and scientific research institutions are mutually beneficial.”

The government’s integrated review refresh, published in March 2023, ordered a comprehensive review of legislative and other provisions to protect Britain’s academic sector. 

“We have concluded that universities are both vulnerable and that they are being targeted,” Dowden said.

In his speech, Dowden also outlined proposals to curb outbound investment, and toughen export controls, on emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence that could boost hostile states’ militaries. 

He said the UK must step up the defence of its economic security in the face of an “increasing range” of cyber and economic threats from state-based actors and their proxies.

Britain should “de-risk” without decoupling from the global economy, he said, citing Russia “driving up the price of gas” and “Chinese acts of economic coercion”, including imposing trade restrictions on Lithuania, as examples of recent threats.

The Department for Business and Trade will begin a review weighing up targeted curbs on outward direct investment on technologies that could “present national security issues”, Dowden announced. It will consider whether ministers should harness existing powers to mitigate risks and whether new powers are required.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak last year started examining US President Joe Biden’s moves to restrict outbound investment into the Chinese tech sector, including AI, chips and quantum computing.

A separate consultation by the business department will engage with companies and academics to develop stronger export controls on technologies including some applications of AI, quantum computing, cryogenic equipment and facial recognition technology.

In addition, Dowden set out plans to enhance the government’s ability to deal with crises, which included increasing the number of civil servants with security clearance beyond the traditional strongholds of the Ministry of Defence and intelligence agencies.

Whitehall will launch fresh exercises, including stress tests, to ensure the UK is better equipped to respond to future economic security shocks such as Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

While the openness of Britain’s economy was “one of the great strengths of our system”, it also brought “vulnerabilities”, Dowden said.