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Sun 5 December 2021

Max Colbert investigates how UK universities are bound to secrecy over their links to controversial Chinese companies

A new investigation has uncovered the existence of agreements gagging elite UK universities and preventing them from making public any information about their partnerships with state-backed Chinese technology companies.

The Byline Intelligence Team and The Citizens can reveal that nearly half (42%) of Russell Group institutions have relied on non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) or section 43 (commercial interest) exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act in order to avoid revealing details of these partnerships.

Of the 24 institutions in the Russell Group, three did not respond to a request for information about any such partnerships within the time limit; 10 said that NDAs or section 43 exemptions were in place; and three refused to disclose for reasons relating to cost or because the information was “not routinely collected centrally”.

Of the information that was made available about their research agreements with Chinese tech firms, typically only minimal details were released.

This investigation uncovered that at least 24 NDAs between universities and the Chinese company Huawei have existed since 2018.

As the name suggests, non-disclosure agreements are legal texts designed to prevent the release of certain information to outside parties. Queen’s University, Belfast revealed that “Huawei have… included a specific clause to protect the release of such information under contract”.

It is unclear if other state-backed technology firms, such as Tencent, hold similar agreements with Russell Group institutions. Several universities declined to confirm or deny which companies were working with their institutions, let alone disclose any specifics.

The University of Leeds stated that it was party to one research project and three NDAs, and that it was withholding information under sections 43 and 41, relating to actionable breaches of confidence by a third-party should that information be disclosed.

Exeter refused to disclose any of the information requested, even after an internal review of the process, once again citing the commercial interests of both the company and university. It said that “the release of this information would be likely to prejudice the commercial interests of the University of Exeter and the third party as we have a non-disclosure clause in our contracts”.

Byline Times and The Citizens have previously revealed that the University of Oxford has engaged in an artificial intelligence programme with the state-backed Chinese tech giant Tencent, and that 75% of Russell Group universities have accepted money since 2018 from either Tencent or Huawei.

There has been growing scrutiny of the sources of university finance. Universities Minister Michelle Donelan recently warned that institutions should consider the “ethical and reputational risks” associated with their donations.

“The lesson here is that British universities should be more transparent about their research partnerships,” Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat told the Byline Intelligence Team. “When those agreements deepen ties with authoritarian states, that raises questions about what is in Britain’s best interests.”

In the context of Huawei, Tencent, and other firms linked to Chinese surveillance apparatus, there are issues around the intelligence produced by these research projects – many of which seemingly defy UK national security objectives – and the influence that Chinese state actors may now wield over academia.

China has recently been accused of buying its way into the higher education sector, from funding research and development to sponsoring professorships – actions which may have enabled it to censor those who speak out against the regime abroad, critics claim.

In one example, Cambridge’s Professor Peter Nolan, when employed in a role allegedly funded by the family of China’s former Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, cautioned against students wanting to hold a debate about the Chinese state’s persecution of Uyghur Muslims. Research from Byline Times and The Citizens indicates that Cambridge University has, since 2018, accepted £3.8 million in grants from Huawei.

In another case, nearly 200 British academics were investigated early in 2021 on suspicion of unwittingly helping the Chinese Government to research weapons development – violating laws designed to prevent sensitive intellectual property from falling into the hands of hostile state actors.

Recent research conducted on both Russell Group and other top-tier universities indicates that 20 universities have accepted more than £40 million from Huawei and other state-affiliated Chinese companies – not only in the tech sector.


A Culture of Silence

More generally, it was recently reported that almost one-third of British university campuses were using non-disclosure agreements to “silence” students in relation to poor teaching, false advertising on courses and, worryingly, against victims of sexual assault.

Instances have been revealed of female students being forced to sign NDAs or face the threat of expulsion, with the bodies involved accused of trying to protect their own reputations. Figures obtained by the BBC in 2019 showed that universities had spent around £87 million in NDA pay-offs since 2017. 

Meanwhile, the ongoing and worsening culture of secrecy in public life extends far beyond universities.

2020 was recently found to be the worst year on record for UK government secrecy. That year, only 41% of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests sent to government departments were answered in full, and the Government spent half a million pounds of taxpayers’ money on lawyers to fight FOI disclosures.

Likewise, the Cabinet Office, already under fire for operating a secretive ‘Clearing House’ unit geared towards blacklisting journalists by vetting FOI requests, refused to release details pertaining to a meeting between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and oil giant BP as COP26 talks were in progress.

Questions have also been raised recently over the connections of MPs to firms linked to the Chinese state, with Conservative MP Richard Fuller being paid £300,000 by a private equity firm that invests in spy tech for the Chinese regime.

As standards surrounding the disclosure of information continue to be disregarded, either to preserve the commercial interests of third parties or the personal reputation of public officials, the resulting lack of accountability can only serve to erode public trust and faith in the standards of institutions that operate ostensibly to serve the common good.

Ultimately, it is always the individual that loses out in this scenario – often at the expense of oversight, accountability, and to the benefit of commercial entities.  

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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