UK academics more likely to self-censor Chinese students

Forty percent of graduate scholars in China say they self-censor when teaching students from that country, according to a survey of attitudes within universities about whether academic freedom is threatened by internationalization.

A new paper, published by academics from the universities of Exeter, Oxford and Portsmouth, presents the results of a survey distributed to 25,000 academics working in the social sciences and humanities departments of UK universities and completed by 1,500 of them.

With growing political and media scrutiny over whether international ties between UK universities and their counterparts in autocratic states threaten academic freedom in Britain, the authors sought to piece together stronger evidence beyond the “scattered” evidence and anecdotal” to date.

“The data suggests that academic freedom is perceived to be under threat by a substantial majority of UK social scientists,” the authors write of the survey results.

More than two-thirds (67%) of respondents said academic freedom was under threat in higher education, with this perception highest among specialists in politics and international relations, and lowest in the humanities .

A majority of academics (59%) said they did not feel pressured to collaborate with non-democratic partners as a result of Brexit, although 10% said they did.

Concerns are most acute among academics focused on specific regions, according to the survey.

“The most significant contrast is among academics who report self-censorship when teaching students from authoritarian regimes: this value is considerably higher among scholars specializing in China (41%) and Africa (39%) than among those specializing in European States (33%) and all are significantly above the average of all respondents (20%),” the document states.

In another finding regarding China, 28% of respondents said they would have serious concerns about conducting joint research with scholars based at Hong Kong universities, although 38% disagreed, ” and a large minority answered don’t know”.

Tena Prelec, a Politics and International Relations researcher at Oxford, one of the authors, said: “The concern of Politics and International Relations academics may be greater as they are more exposed to the sensitivities that arise when teaching students and conduct research in autocracies.

“Also, alongside business and law, these departments have often grown fastest for both domestic and international students, perhaps creating the impression among staff that market demand trumps maintaining standards. and academic freedom.”

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