MI5 and GCHQ have warned universities to put national security before commercial interest due to fears over state theft of research and intellectual property from campuses.
According to The Times, GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre and the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure told universities: “Hostile state actors are targeting UK universities to steal personal data, research data and intellectual property, and this could be used for their own military, commercial and authoritarian interests.”
These concerns follow an increase in the number of Chinese students coming to study in Britain. At 106,000, the figure has doubled in a decade and during this time it is estimated that 500 Chinese military scientists have spent time at British universities.
Applications from Chinese students to study at UK universities have gone up 30% since last year, with numbers exceeding those from Northern Ireland for the first time, according to official statistics.
Manchester, University College London and Liverpool all have over 5000 Chinese students and at Liverpool, almost one in five of its 27,000 students are Chinese. Sheffield University has the largest percentage of both Chinese undergraduate and postgraduate students.
Some critics have claimed that universities reliant on Chinese funding – with some students paying up to £50,000 a year in fees – have been pressured to censor debate on subjects such as democracy in Hong Kong and the status of Tibet and Taiwan by Chinese state officials.
One of these cases was at Nottingham, one of the two British universities with a branch in China; managers had been putting pressure on academics to drop talks after complaints from state officials.
In June this year, a data breach that compromised the personal details of thousands of Australian National University students and staff was believed to have been led by Chinese hackers. The university is home to the ‘School of Strategic and Defence Studies’ which holds close links with government departments and agencies.
A number of universities recently have received complaints of Hong Kong students being harassed by Chinese mainland students including Aston University, Sheffield and Birmingham University.
Several other British cities have seen clashes between Hong Kong and Chinese students, amid claims that some from the mainland are being directed by the state to defend the communist government.