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A Tory MP calling for greater transparency over potential Chinese influence in UK universities has claimed too many academics are failing to recognise that “education is being weaponised by those against us”.
Alicia Kearns warned that Confucius Institutes – public language and cultural education programmes funded by an organisation linked to the Chinese government – are “undermining the integrity of the Mandarin education in our country”.
Analysis by the China Research Group shows that British schools and universities rely on 30 Confucius Institutes, the highest number of any country, to co-ordinate the teaching of Mandarin.
In England, the Department for Education’s flagship £26.4 million Mandarin Excellence Programme for language teaching in schools is delivered through UCL’s Confucius Institute.
But Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, said the issue of Chinese funding was being “blown out of proportion”.
Asked about the financial implications of Confucius Institutes, he told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme: “I think when you look at the overall picture, it’s very, very small amounts of money, certainly not enough to influence any UK university, probably not any university around the world either.
Speaking to @BBCRadio4 shortly regarding my new clause to the Free Speech Bill to tackle the use of Confucius Institutes by the CCP in our education system and why they undermine academic integrity and freedom. pic.twitter.com/Z3OYotkSae
— Alicia Kearns, MP for Rutland and Melton (@aliciakearns) June 10, 2022
“I think it’s being blown out of proportion. And I think (we) need to step back and think about the value to the students in terms of the skills and experience that they’re going to get for the future.
“Post-Brexit, we’re looking to get trade deals all around the world, and if our next generation doesn’t know anything about the language and culture of countries that are significant global players, then I think we’re setting ourselves up for real trouble in the future.”
Ms Kearns is part of a cross-party group of MPs tabling an amendment to the Government’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech Bill), which would require institutions to report the funding and activities of Confucius Institutes.
The MPs want the Education Secretary to have the power to order universities to provide alternative Mandarin programmes for students and cut ties with the institutes.
Ms Kearns told Radio 4’s PM: “The fact is we are in a state of hybrid war, one that we have not chosen, but where every potential influence is being used against us, and that includes academia.
The fact is we are in a state of hybrid war, one that we have not chosen, but where every potential influence is being used against us, and that includes academia
“We have instances of British academics who are working with some of the most sensitive technology like railguns being allowed to fly into China during the pandemic when no one else could get in or out.
“We have Confucius Institutes undermining the integrity of the Mandarin education in our country. And I’m afraid too many academics are not willing to recognise that education is being weaponised by those against us.
“All we’re trying to do here is uphold freedom of speech, maintain the ability of freedom of thought, and unfortunately, we do need to get real and in conversations I’ve had with universities, we’re just not seeing that realism of the fact that they are being used as a tool against their own people.”
The China Research Group has said Confucius Institute teachers are warned not to cover political issues such as Taiwan and Tibet, and that there have been examples of “blatant interference”.
Asked what what would happen if the Chinese government said a Confucius Institute building could not be used for a debate on Taiwan or human rights abuses, Dr Bradshaw said he thought the conversation would still go ahead.
But he said: “It might have to happen in a slightly different place on the university.”
He added: “We’ve got a really good track record of making sure those sorts of difficult debates can and do happen on our campuses.”