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University pilot launched to comply with China's internet regulations

The University has responded to the concerns that complying with Chinese regulations would amount to censorship.

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The University of York is part of a pilot project to allow international students based in China to continue their studies abroad for the next academic year, as reported by the BBC. The scheme has created a new internet-based link mechanism which will allow Chinese Students’ access to university course content and recorded lectures. Chinese students will be able to gain access to the content as the mechanism will ensure that accessible course content adheres to the Chinese government’s regulations on internet access and use.

The project is being run by JISC, formerly the Joint Information Systems Committee. Other universities such as King’s College London, Queen Mary’s University London and Southampton University will also be involved in the pilot project.

The University has a large proportion of Chinese and international students, the HESA reports that, for the academic year of 2017/18 of the 18,825 students studying at york, a total 3185 of them were residents of a non-EU country. Though there are no exact figures available for how many of those from York specifically originate in mainland China, the proportion of Chinese students studying in the UK overall has increased greatly by 34% since the 2014/15 academic year.

Furthermore, data acquired by Nouse under the Freedom of Information Act indicates that the university took in just over £3.6 Million from students hailing from China for the academic year 2017/18, split across both academic provision and accommodation provisions. Considering that the number of Chinese students studying in the UK has continued to increase since 2018 it is clear that the university desires some form of provision to allow them to continue their studies from abroad if the COVID-19 pandemic makes travel to the UK and study in person unattainable.

However, JISC’s plan has drawn significant controversy from certain academics and the potential influence of the Chinese government on University behaviours more generally has also drawn the attention of some MPs. In an essay published by the HEPI, one of the UK’s leading higher education contributors, Professor Kerry Brown, has cautioned of the risks associated with the plan, as it could lead to “self-censorship” by institutions to meet the Chinese authority’s guidelines. Brown argues that the concept of “self-censorship” is so pervasive and important to tackle because it is “invisible” and “very private” meaning that it occurs without direct stimulus from anyone except the individual that has censored their own work. Professor Brown is employed by King’s College, one of the other institutions involved in the project.

Likewise, before this plan was revealed, the foreign affairs select committee had already cautioned against allowing any autocratic government to apply “financial, political and diplomatic pressure” to influence the education provided by universities in the UK. Chair of the committee, Tom Tugendhadt called for a defence of our “hard-won liberties” in the field of academia with his committee’s report making particular reference to China’s handling of protests in Hong Kong, a conflict that affected University campuses, as well as Chinese and Hong Kong students, staged multiple demonstrations and counter-demonstrations on the subject with a high profile example from York making national headlines.

Despite the controversy, Universities UK, an organisation representing the collective voice of the country’s higher education institutions, is a supporter of the project. They have said they are “not aware of any instances when course content has been altered” and denied that the project would be akin to “censorship” in direct contrast to Professor Brown and the Foreign Affairs select committee’s concerns. Similarly, JISC told the BBC that “all course content was compliant with regulations, none of it has been altered”.

In a statement to Nouse, the University reiterated that “there are no limits on what material we present to our students on our Virtual Learning Environment and there are no restrictions in access or censorship” they have added that they “believe this pilot project will give students in China access to our normal course materials, in a much more efficient and accessible way.”

The project is due to finish this month, alongside the academic year, but is being considered for wider rollout potentially involving more institutions in September, pending decisions about student wellbeing during the pandemic.

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