MI5 warns foreign states are targeting UK universities | Politics | News

April 26, 2024
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MI5 has warned universities they could have to bolster their security in a bid to stop spies from accessing crucial research.

Ken McCallum, the MI5 director general, and National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) chief Felicity Oswald, briefed leaders from 24 top universities on the threat posed by foreighn states.

The briefing – which included the likes of Oxford and Cambridge universities as well as Imperial College London – prompted Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden to announce plans for a consultation on new security measures.

These could include vetting and security clearence for key university personnel as well as strengthened transparency when it comes to research funding.

The measures will primarily focus on a small portion of academic work, particularly research with potential dual uses in civilian and military applications.

This follows concerns that hostile states, particularly China, are gaining undue influence over the sector.

The government ordered a review of protections for higher education in its refreshed foreign and security policy last year.

It followed concerns that some universities’ reliance on overseas funding could leave them open to being “influenced, exploited, or even coerced” by foreign powers.

Despite the need for increased security, Mr. Dowden acknowledged the importance of maintaining the open nature of UK universities.

He stated: “For a millennium, our universities have thrived on being open open to ideas, open to innovation, open to being independent of Government.

“This is not about erecting fences, this is about balancing evolving threats and protecting the integrity and security of our great institutions.”

The consultation on the proposed measures is expected to provide a platform for further discussion and debate on how to best protect sensitive research while preserving the open and collaborative environment that has long been a hallmark of UK universities.

The NCSC and the National Protective Security Agency have also launched a new tool to help universities assess their own research security.

Science and Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan said: “I believe that universities are on the front lines of a battle for information.”

“Maintaining the UK’s world-leading reputation as an academic superpower relies on having strong safeguards to protect research from those who wish to do us harm.”

Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group of leading research universities, said: “Russell Group universities take their national security responsibilities incredibly seriously and already work closely with government and the intelligence community to help protect UK breakthroughs in fields like AI, which are important to our national interest.”

“But we also recognise security is a dynamic and evolving challenge which means we need the right expertise and intelligence to keep pace with this.”

Universities UK chief executive Vivienne Stern has voiced her approval, stating: “For several years, Universities UK has worked with Government to ensure that universities are supported and equipped to recognise and mitigate risks to national security.”

“This is important and necessary, and we welcome the Government’s approach to working hand in hand with us to get the mechanisms right.”



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