Exeter, Devon UK • Jun 15, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home Comment How do we stop Exeter University selling its morals to Authoritarian States?

How do we stop Exeter University selling its morals to Authoritarian States?

Flo Marks and Students for Uyghurs Exeter share their concerns with Exeter University's links with certain Chinese institutions following previous claims that this makes them complicit in the Uyghur genocide.
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How do we stop Exeter University selling its morals to Authoritarian States?

High angle shot of Streatham Campus
Image: Pierre Terre, Wikimedia Commons

The views expressed in this article are strictly those of the author, and not necessarily the views of Exeposé.

Flo Marks and Students for Uyghurs Exeter share their concerns with Exeter University’s links with certain Chinese institutions following previous claims that this makes them complicit in the Uyghur genocide.

In March, an investigation was released into the ‘Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies’ (IAIS) institutional relationship with Tsinghua University in China. Tsinghua houses the scholar Hu Angang who is responsible for producing the academic foundations of the Uyghur genocide. This article investigates and outlines further concerns I and the Students for Uyghurs Exeter have with the institutional relationship and offers practical reforms the university can take to mitigate these. 

Exeter has a history of dubious partnerships with authoritarian regimes.

When contacting the IAIS faculty, I was overwhelmed with the number of reflective, self-critical and diverse responses concerning the benefits and drawbacks of the Tsinghua agreement. I am incredibly grateful to all the staff who spoke with me. It is important to note that none of the academics I spoke to, except for Professor John Heathershaw, were comfortable with me naming them directly. 

Some academics were unsurprised by Exeter’s relationship with Tsinghua. Rather than viewing the issue as unique, they saw it as indicative of Exeter’s weak due diligence, safeguarding and consulting policies. I believe Exeter has a history of dubious partnerships with authoritarian regimes. For instance, despite negotiations falling through in 2003, Exeter’s Vice Chancellor met with Gaddafi over a £75m deal to educate Libyan officials. Exeter also received £8 million pounds from the Sheik of Sharjah who ruled one of the most conservative emirates of the authoritarian UAE. Moreover, Exeter is estimated to have made £2,175,308 complicit investments in R&D support to companies directly involved with Israeli violations of international law in Palestine. In line with this, I suggest the University of Exeter is currently failing to manage the risks associated with internationalisation of higher education and I reject the assertion that “robust procedures and due diligence processes” are in place, as the University wrote in their response to our original article. 

An FOI report highlighted that Exeter has also been ineffective at distancing itself from Hu Angang

Focusing again specifically on the IAIS partnership with Tsinghua, my principal concern is that it is ethically dubious. The parallels between Hu Angang’s ethnic policies and the genocidal actions of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are arguably too close to be circumstantial and some Exeter academics suggest the partnership should be boycotted. 

The idea, expressed by an Exeter Professor, that Hu Angang is simply a rotten apple who can be avoided, whereas Tsinghua is an ethically unproblematic institution does not sit well with Exeter staff and students. An FOI report highlighted that Exeter has also been ineffective at distancing itself from Hu Angang: a College of Humanities academic met him in 2016 after speaking at a conference. Ethical concerns cannot be mitigated by reducing this issue to the individual; Tsinghua, alongside other Chinese institutions (as well as Western institutions and companies), are directly complicit in the Uyghur genocide by aiding and abetting the CCP. As Judith Butler recently pointed out in a talk organised by the IAIS and the Exeter Decolonising Network, academic institutions can offer progressive causes such as decolonial thought, while at the same time reproducing inequalities they ostensibly oppose. We believe this is the case when it comes to the IAIS, an institution that offers world class modules on the Middle East while forging links with an institution that houses the author of the ideological foundations of the Uyghur (Turkic-Muslim) genocide; international consensus increasingly confirms its total ‘genocide’ status.

This position certainly holds strength when compared to other scenarios – how would our community react if it was found out we had links to an institution who employs holocaust deniers or advocates of eugenics? To retain Exeter University’s ethical and academic integrity with its students and staff, these institutional ties should be considered more seriously. 

The University of Exeter must not sell its reputation to dictatorships at the expense of students and staff alike, nor can it allow itself to become a soft power tool of the CCP to legitimise the Uyghur genocide abroad.

Institutional relationships with ethically problematic institutions like Tsinghua also pose reputational risks to Exeter and its staff alike, irrespective of whether or not they actually support the link. One member of faculty at the IAIS suggested that the impact on Exeter’s reputation of links such as these may inhibit the IAIS’s ability to invite world renowned academics like Judith Butler or Angela Davis to speak at future events. As Heathershaw suggested to us, while Exeter may wish to distance itself from Hu Angang’s scholarship, this is easier said than done when formal institutional links have been forged. Members of staff at the IAIS who were not involved in the decision making process (a large number of whom opposed the relationship) may also have their reputations tarnished by employment at the IAIS. 

Furthermore, not only do we risk sacrificing our reputation, but this partnership has the potential to legitimise Tsinghua and gloss over the CCP’s genocidal ethnic policy. Heathershaw suggested that relationships with institutions in authoritarian states have the potential to be used by foreign actors for “reputation laundering” meaning Exeter’s international reputation could be utilised by regimes to enhance their own. The University of Exeter must not sell its reputation to dictatorships at the expense of students and staff alike, nor can it allow itself to become a soft power tool of the CCP to legitimise the Uyghur genocide abroad. 

However, according to a Professor we spoke with, Chinese universities have been historically reluctant to build relationships with Western institutions. This challenges the assertion made by one scholar in our original article that Islamic studies departments are being actively courted by the CCP for soft power reasons.  While this may be true, a possible reason why Chinese universities have in the past been reluctant to form links with Western institutions could be that the CCP was not carrying out a genocide of Muslims that it needed to legitimise until relatively recently. 

Additionally, the same academic challenged our claims about the importance of Hu Angang’s scholarship in influencing CCP ethnic policies. They argued that Hu Angang is not taken seriously as a scholar by the majority of staff at Tsinghua and it is unlikely that his writing is the inspiration behind the Uyghur genocide. It is therefore not fair to condemn Tsinghua in its entirety. 

Furthermore, others who argue that it is unfair to condemn the whole institution cite the many benefits of the partnership and broader internationalisation of HE. For instance, scholars from Exeter have cited the energy and vitality emanating from the Tsinghua Area Studies Department. They believe our collaboration with the institution will improve academic quality by expanding and growing scholarship through dynamic and critical cross-border discussions. 

As students with no personal experience at Tsinghua, we cannot comment on or refute claims about Hu Angang’s reputation among other academics. We do, however, believe that the literature exploring the link between second generation ethnic policy and the Uyghur genocide is significant, but inconclusive (as the authors of these studies accept). This is because the CCP cannot openly express support for the policy if it denies the existence of the Uyghur genocide to begin with. The best case scenario is that Hu Angang is merely a supporter of the genocide rather than a facilitator. Either way, Tsinghua should not employ scholars who hold these views even if their role in government policy is overstated. While this is our personal view and we cannot fully refute claims about Hu Angang’s reputation, the point is that there is clearly a debate to be had over the merits of partnership with Tsinghua. Unfortunately, students and staff occupy a peripheral role in this conversation. A conversation must be opened between management, staff and students about the drawbacks of partnership with Tsinghua.

We must stop finding out about donations from the Sheik of Sharjah or partnerships with Tsinghua ex-ante via a plaque or an Exeposé article… 

Despite our opposition to universities in the UK forging links with institutions like Tsinghua, Students for Uyghurs unequivocally condemns calls to ‘decouple’ from China, the preferred strategy of right-wing organisations like the Henry Jackson Society. We believe this dangerous ‘cold war’ rhetoric could result in a world polarised into separate blocks, increasing the likelihood of conflict between China and the West. This argument also fails to distinguish between institutions like Tsinghua and Chinese students. This was a point emphasised by Professor Sean R. Roberts, an expert in how the war on terror informs the Uyghur genocide, who noted how dangerous and unproductive the decoupling narrative is due to its potential to spark an increase in sinophobia. Universities in the UK benefit tremendously from the presence of talented Chinese students who should not face stigmatisation and calls for them to leave. The internationalisation of education is undeniably a good we all benefit from. However, adequate safeguards are not in place to manage security risks that arise from internationalisation and our relationship with authoritarian states.

If the “delusion of decoupling” is not a solution, how can universities in the UK mitigate security threats arising from internationalisation of HE? 

First of all, funding from authoritarian states who commit mass atrocity crimes should be limited. It is not only unethical for entire buildings and departments to be plastered with dedications to authoritarians, it is also embarrassing for Exeter. We cannot allow such states to buy legitimacy at the expense of our own. 

Secondly, informal relationships between individual scholars at both universities should be encouraged rather than formal institutional links. We believe this would mitigate our three concerns about institutional partnership. Without a formal link with Hu Angang’s employers, unethical academic partnerships are also avoided. Without formal links, Tsinghua as an institution (and by extension the policies that Hu Angang supports) are not legitimised. Furthermore, links with uncontroversial individual scholars do not threaten Exeter’s reputation in the same way that a formal partnership would. Finally, a more informal approach avoids decoupling and would allow talented scholars from Tsinghua (who do not endorse the works of Hu Angang) to continue working at Exeter without the ethical and reputational baggage that formal institutional links carry and without legitimising the CCP. 

Thirdly, the University of Exeter must ensure there is more consultation with students and staff prior to relationships being formed. We must stop finding out about donations from the Sheik of Sharjah or partnerships with Tsinghua ex-ante via a plaque or an Exeposé article… 

The reasonable and legitimate desire of Exeter’s academics to remain anonymous when publishing this article perfectly demonstrates how Exeter’s Academic Freedom Agreement is failing to protect them.

Reform must include updating the University’s 2009 Academic Freedom Agreement. According to Professor Heathershaw, the guidelines were inappropriate when first adopted and are even more so today 12 years later. The policy contains several notable omissions. For instance, signatories include only the University’s Vice Chancellor, Professor Steve Smith, and the University and College Union Branch Secretary, Nick Birbeck. This implies the Student Guild was ignored in discussions. This is reflective of the University’s wider top-down managerial approach to policy formation. Without ensuring we create a more bottom-up and consultative process generating energised debate, including key perspectives and angles that might have otherwise been overlooked by management staff, the university will be unable to protect academic freedom, safety and reputational concerns when entering into relationships with HE institutions in authoritarian regimes. This must change.

Moreso, despite seeming to have been copied and pasted much from the 1997 UNESCO definition of ‘academic freedom’, the right to be critical of one’s institution alongside security of employment has been left out. This points to the issue, which was highlighted by one Exeter staff striking in the academic year of 2019-20, of potential controversial or critical work of casualised staff being self-censored due to job insecurity and vulnerability. For example, no academics we spoke to at the IAIS were willing to put their careers on the line and allow us to quote them in this article. Moreover, during the strikes, the reduced protections and security of casual and Tier 2 Work Visa staff meant their right to protest was compromised by the increased risk it posed to their employment. Finally, the reasonable and legitimate desire of Exeter’s academics to remain anonymous when publishing this article perfectly demonstrates how Exeter’s Academic Freedom Agreement is failing to protect them. 

Overall, to ensure controversial and potentially problematic relationships such as Tsinghua are debated prior to rather than post implementation and to protect Academic Freedom, a new framework is needed. Decisions to enter into international partnerships, fieldwork abroad, expatriate academics and students, receive/give grants or donations must be taken on a case-by-case basis in line with more robust processes and adhering to far stricter standards. As such, we advise using and implementing the Model Code of Conduct designed by the Internationalisation and Academic Freedom Working Group, which Exeter’s Professor Heathershaw has played a pivotal role in drafting. It is a comprehensive document which should be adopted by all universities, creating common responsibilities embedding transparency and accountability that will strengthen our Academic Freedom processes allowing Exeter to gain all of the benefits of the internationalisation of HE whilst mitigating all the associated risks.

Replace the 2009 Agreement with the 2021 Model Code of Conduct.

In regards to what should be done about Tsinghua specifically, steps are already being taken and we celebrate this. Since our last article, we have welcomed the increased dialogue and engagement of IAIS faculty members and management on its relationship with institutions in China, such as Tsinghua, but also with other countries and donor organisations. One outcome of these discussions has been a commitment as a staff-body to compose a charter that will govern their international partnerships and engagement to “support important research and teaching initiatives, without bringing any external interference into the teaching and research activities” of their community. The Students for Uyghurs champion this approach, which is not only being taken by the IAIS but, with the College’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor’s approval, will be taken by the whole of the College of Social Sciences and International Study (SSIS). 

Even though this was not an initial concern of ours when writing our original article, in researching this investigation we explored the possibility that the Tsinghua relationship threatens academic freedom at the University of Exeter, especially scholarship concerning the Uyghur genocide. However, after speaking with scholars at the IAIS, we are confident that our relationship with Tsinghua does not inhibit criticism of the CCP or scholarship on Uyghur issues. For example, Sean R. Roberts, the author of one of the most comprehensive books on the Uyghur genocide, The War on the Uyghurs, spoke on 26 May. To reiterate, we are primarily concerned with ethics, Exeter’s reputation and potential reputation laundering for the CCP. 

The IAIS and SSIS are leading the way to reform, but we now call on Exeter’s Senior Management Teams to adopt a similar approach at a university level. Replace the 2009 Agreement with the 2021 Model Code of Conduct. 

While it may be our personal preference for the IAIS to adopt a more informal relationship with Tsinghua and abandon its institutional ties, our primary motivation in writing this article is to encourage the university to adopt a wider deliberative process that includes students and staff alike when forming institutional links with authoritarian states. To this end, we believe a town hall event organised by the Student Guild would be the perfect forum to facilitate this conversation. Numerous academics that we have spoken to in researching this article have been more than willing to attend such an event. 

Follow the Students for Uyghurs Exeter Instagram to keep updated with the discussion.


Exeposé contacted the University of Exeter for a response and received the following comment:

“Before entering into any new collaboration, the University employs robust procedures and due diligence processes and ensures that we are following the most up-to-date regulations and guidance from the UK Government and Universities UK. To date, that advice has been that we should continue our connections with China, as a part of the UK’s extensive education and cultural links with the country.

“The University of Exeter is implementing recommendations set out in recent UUK guidance to all UK universities on ‘Managing risks in internationalisation: security related issues’. This involves aligning all our appropriate policies and procedures with the UUK guidelines, including those on research and education partnerships, donations and receipt of international income.

“The University works with a wide range of partner universities at individual, College and institutional level on a variety of topics. For example, the relationship between Exeter and Tsinghua enables some of the most renowned climate scientists in the world who are based at the two universities to work together to help tackle the environment and climate emergency, and Exeter’s Humanities scholars are working with their counterparts in Tsinghua’s Institute for World Literatures and Culture as part of the UK-China Humanities Alliance, which involves several other universities from both countries.

“Staff have the freedom to be named or to remain anonymous. We do not recognize the portrait painted as being representative of the views of the majority of staff in IAIS but where staff do have specific concerns, we always encourage them to express these openly. The University’s Senate will be reviewing the agreement on academic freedom during the next academic year.”

The views expressed in this article are strictly those of the author, and not necessarily the views of Exeposé.

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