UK universities comply with China internet limits

Protesters holding Chinese flags

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Ben Miskell

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There were rival student protests over Hong Kong in UK universities last year

UK universities are testing a new online teaching link for students in China – which will require course materials to comply with Chinese restrictions on the internet.

It enables students in China to keep studying UK degrees online, despite China’s limits on internet access.

But it means students can only reach material on an “allowed” list.

Universities UK said it was “not aware of any instances when course content has been altered”.

And the universities’ body rejected that this was accepting “censorship”.

A spokeswoman said the project would allow students in China to have better access to UK courses “while complying with local regulations”.

The pilot project involves four Russell Group universities – King’s College London, Queen Mary University of London, York and Southampton – and is run by JISC, formerly the Joint Information Systems Committee, which provides digital services for UK universities.

China’s internet censorship means that some websites are filtered or blocked – and there have been concerns that students in China could not study online, such as clicking on an embedded link in a scholarly article.

The technical solution, provided free by the Chinese internet firm Alibaba Cloud, creates a virtual connection between the student in China and the online network of the UK university, where the course is being taught.

But a spokeswoman for JISC says Chinese students will not have free access to the internet, but will only be able to reach “resources that are controlled and specified” by the university in the UK.

Any online information used in these UK university courses 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”, said JISC.

This raises questions about academic freedom and free speech – but when asked about whether these principles were being put at risk, the universities have so far referred back to JISC.

JISC, which is an online services provider, says such issues are for the universities – and that “all course materials have been within regulations. Nothing was altered or blocked”.

Universities UK, which is a supporter of the project, said: “We do not endorse censorship. This scheme is intended to ensure that Chinese students, learning remotely during the pandemic, can access course materials and are able to continue their studies.” 

The university body said a similar scheme was already operating for Australian universities.

As well as complying with Chinese regulations, this online link is intended to create a more reliable connection, so that students can more easily watch lectures and follow their courses.

JISC says online students in China face particular barriers with restrictions that “screen traffic between China and the rest of the world, filtering content from overseas used for delivering teaching and learning and blocking some platforms and applications”.

The pilot will finish this month and it could be offered more widely from September.

Chinese students have become an important source of revenue for UK universities, representing about a quarter of all overseas students.

There have been concerns about the financial cost if the coronavirus pandemic meant Chinese students stayed away – or if they were deterred by political tensions over Hong Kong and accusations of human rights abuses.

“Offending China was never difficult,” writes Professor Kerry Brown of King’s College London, in an article published on Thursday by the Higher Education Policy Institute.

Now the professor of Chinese studies says it has become “extremely easy”.

But he warns that universities should not adopt their own “pre-emptive self-censorship” when engaging with China.