King’s College London, in testing new online teaching links for students in China, will be required to comply with Chinese laws on internet restriction, the BBC reported earlier today.
This is to enable students who are not able to enter the UK for on-campus learning in September to continue their studies. Yet it means that King’s may be prevented from teaching certain material, though what material may be affected is not yet clear.
King’s, Queen Mary University of London, York, and Southampton are the four universities involved in the pilot project, which is being run by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) who provide digital services for universities.
While universities struggle to secure online teaching amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, new concerns from students arise which fear Chinese internet restriction laws will prevent them from accessing some resources.
A JISC spokesperson said the project will not give students free access to the internet and students will still only be able to access “resources that are controlled and specified” by King’s. These resources will have to be on a “security ‘allow’ list, which will list all the links to the educational materials UK institutions include in their course materials”, JISC told the BBC.
Universities UK said that it was “not aware of any instances when course content has been altered” and universities have rejected accusations that this is accepting “censorship”.
However, King’s professor Kerry Brown expressed concerns over the risk of academics engaging in “self-censorship” and how its impact on UK academia might be unclear.
In an essay published by the Higher Education Policy Institute, he argued that “while one can sometimes find tangible evidence in the form of conversations, emails, letters or other means that pressure has been placed, with much self-censorship the act itself is invisible – it occurs in people’s heads, before and as they write and is very private.”
A 2019 report by a House of Commons All-Party Foreign Affairs Committee warned that the government and universities have failed to adequately respond to “mounting evidence” that “autocratic states” would aim to undermine UK academic freedom.
The report concentrates “in particular on Russia and China”, stating that that “our evidence suggests that both have engaged in overt and covert interference in the affairs of the UK and its partners.” The report claims that “China largely works within the system but aims to change it to suit its own goals, which may be very different from those of the UK.”
According to the Kings’financial statement for 2018/19, 2,875 students at KCL are domiciled in China (excluding Hong Kong). They made up 35.25% of non-EU, full fee-paying students (8,155), and 8.7% of King’s students in total (32,895).
The same financial statement declares that 44% of its revenue came from tuition fees last year, that 13% of this was from 3,823 overseas undergraduates. This means that approximately 10% of Kings’ tuition fee revenue, and 4.4% of their revenue in total, could come from Chinese students.
This figure does not account for the proportion of Chinese students on certain courses. At King’s, STEM departments often charge higher tuition fees for overseas students, so the real percentage could be higher or lower than this. It also makes no claims about individual students’ politics or research output.