MPs bid to hand ministers power to block Confucius Institutes

Amendment to free speech legislation would require higher education providers to report proposed partnerships with overseas organisations

June 10, 2022
A statue of Confucius
Source: iStock

Ministers would be able to block Confucius Institutes from operating in England if an amendment to free speech legislation is passed.

Conservative MP Alicia Kearns submitted the proposed change to the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill before it was due to return to the House of Commons.

“If we are serious about countering threats of hostile states, we must protect all of society – especially in the teaching of critical thinking,” she said on Twitter.

If successful, the amendment would require higher education providers to report proposed partnerships with “an overseas organisation to deliver foreign language, culture or exchange programmes or courses” to the Office for Students (OfS) and the education secretary.

If it is felt that the partnership raises concerns about academic freedom or freedom of speech, the amendment would allow the minister to terminate the agreement or to offer an alternative organisation to deliver the activities.

A report by Index on Censorship in 2021 found that there were about 30 Confucius Institutes operating in the UK. They are run directly by the Chinese government, and their stated mission is to promote the Chinese language and culture abroad.

Several countries are reassessing whether they should be allowed to operate amid deteriorating diplomatic relations with China and concerns that they are being used for spying and to help stifle criticism of the Communist Party.

The US Congress is carrying out a review, while ministers in Germany said last year that the institutes have been “given too much space” to operate.

Ms Kearns’ amendment has gained cross-party support from figures such as former Conservative leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, Liberal Democrat Alistair Carmichael and the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat.

It is, however, unlikely to pass without ministerial backing, and the education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, has tabled his own amendment to regulate overseas funding of English universities.

The free speech bill aims to provide “security to political minorities” on campuses and would mandate the creation of a free speech champion to join the board of the OfS.

A further amendment submitted by the Labour Party’s Matt Western, the shadow minister for higher education, proposed that rules be instated to ensure that the person appointed had not donated to a political party at any point in the past three years.

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