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UCL professor warns academic freedom at risk as module removed after student complaints

Academic freedoms are at risk in UK universities, according to an associate professor at University College London (UCL) who says staff are caving in to demands from Chinese students seeking to influence British academia.

Michelle Shipworth, who teaches energy and social sciences, told Sky News the university removed a module from her after complaints were raised by Chinese students.

The academic had included a data set slide on slavery during one of her teaching exercises, asking why there are so many slaves in China.

She says she went on to dissect the numbers with her students in a bid to encourage them to explore debunking the theory.

View of Michelle Shipworth's lecture on modern day slavery, which says "why does China have so many slaves?"
Image: The professor said UCL removed a module from her after complaints were raised by Chinese students

“Right at the end of the class I had one Chinese student object to the exercise in a slightly cross way,” Prof Shipworth said, explaining that at first she didn’t think much of it.

“My guess is that he decided to make a show of objecting to my challenging question.”

She describes the student as “a very nationalist Chinese student” and says the head of department at UCL got involved after other students also complained.

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“I think it’s over-reaction and I think some of my colleagues are hyper anxious about losing income from overseas students to a point where they will be prepared to do almost anything to keep our students happy.”

View of Michelle Shipworth's lecture on modern day slavery.

An increasing proportion of universities‘ income comes from international student tuition fees. In the UK, the economic benefit of these students rose from £31.3bn to £41.9bn between 2018-19 and 2021-22.

With more than 10,000 students from China, UCL is reported to have the largest cohort which makes up almost a quarter of its total student population.

Prof Shipworth says large groups of foreign students can contain significant minorities seeking to curtail academic freedoms in the interest of protecting their home governments’ reputations.

“All we need to do is just be conscious that the interests of their government might not align with our interests, with the interests of our universities and our government,” she said.

“We simply need to bear that in mind and put in place measures that mean our interests are not overridden in the interests of theirs.”

“UCL and other universities have not taken the steps that they should have,” she adds. “The other students – whether they’re overseas or UK – need to be able to speak out as well. Their academic freedom is being infringed.”

Michelle Shipworth, Energy and Social Sciences associate professor at University College London
Image: Prof Shipworth warns that students are ‘trying to manipulate our system’

Prof Shipworth, who has been at UCL for more than 10 years, cited a Human Rights Watch report that revealed Chinese government attempts to influence academic discussions in Australia – and she warned the same is happening in the UK by students “trying to manipulate our system”.

“You might have just one or two Chinese students in a department who are very nationalistic and might feel it’s their duty. But they can then impose pressure on the other Chinese students to act in a particular way and the really scary thing is that they then report back to the (Chinese Communist Party) if the other Chinese students don’t do as the nationalistic Chinese students demand.”

Read more from Sky News:
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Russian-British citizen in jail’s wife says UK could be ‘more vocal’

The academic warned this can have dangerous consequences for teaching and research.

“Unless you can ask people challenging questions, then you will never have high-quality research. And when it comes to teaching, if we don’t have academic freedom, then I don’t have academic freedom to learn from the pedagogic research.”

A UCL spokesperson told Sky News: “We are proud to have a thriving and diverse student community, with the brightest minds from the UK and more than 150 other countries, choosing to study and research here.

“We also have a long tradition of safeguarding freedom of speech and are committed to upholding the rights of our staff and students to facilitate debate and exercise their academic freedom of enquiry.

“While it would not be appropriate to comment on individual cases, the issues raised in this article are clearly concerning and we are working to establish what has happened.”

Sky News Source