Hundreds of students and scientists barred from entering the UK due to China’s crackdown


Last year in the UK, more than 1,000 postgraduate students and scientists were barred from working in a central government crackdown on research collaboration with China on national security grounds.

According to figures obtained by the Guardian, the Foreign Office rejected a record 1,104 postgraduate students and scientists in 2022, up from just 13 in 2016 and 128 in 2020.

There has been a sharp increase in scientific ties with China after MI5 warned of a growing espionage threat, major research centres have been quietly shut down, and a government minister has accused China’s leading genomics company of hacking the NHS’s genetic database regularly.

Geopolitical tensions rose this week as Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom announced multi-decade, multibillion-dollar deals to counter China’s military expansion in the Indo-Pacific region. China says the AUCAS plan to build a combined fleet of elite nuclear-powered submarines is “a path of danger and error “.

The Foreign Office declined to break down by nationality. Still, data supplied by leading universities, including Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College, suggests that, at least, Chinese academics account for most of those denied clearance at these institutions.

A security expert said that the number of academics banned is “commensurate with the threat”, while some have welcomed the policy change. But the scheme leaves universities needing help to recruit top talent from abroad, leading scientists say.

Professor Sir Peter Matheson, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, said long delays and the “blanket” fashion in which scrutiny is being applied meant the process was “becoming a bottleneck”.

He said, “universities are very conscious of the need to mitigate and understand the risks”. “But research projects are being delayed, staffing efforts are being delayed, and we don’t think that’s going to be in anybody’s interest. It’s a significant problem.”

The Foreign Office’s Academic Technology Approval Scheme, introduced in 2007, requires applications for so-called dual-use research clearance from countries subject to immigration controls to work on other “sensitive” subjects.

In 2016, the year after Chinese President Xi Jinping took a tour of the Graphene Institute in Manchester during a state visit, 13 of those who applied were turned down by the project. But as relations between the West worsen, and China, security and concerns about human rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong have stepped up. ATAS was expanded in 2020 to cover weapons of mass destruction and all advanced conventional military technologies. Indeed, it covered engineering, physics, and computer science and was expanded to include researchers and postgraduate students in 2021.

Scientists and students were rejected in 2020 at a rate of 128; in 2021, it rose to 951 rejections.

Figures obtained through freedom of information requests show that 839 students and 265 researchers had their applications rejected last year – 1,104 out of 50,000 applicants.

Most applicant scientists want to move to the UK to take up a research degree or fellowship offering. Researcher positions at UK universities have already been held by five Chinese scientists from Imperial College for several years, and they may need to leave.

In a speech at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), China expert Charles Parton declared the tightening of security “encouraging” but criticized the government for failing to clearly define its broader policy objectives, such as which areas of science will be prohibited. “If China has a strategy, nobody knows what it is,” he said. “Scientific cooperation with China is one of the most serious questions that must be resolved. If there is a clear definition of what we can cooperate with, no one will be turned away.”

As a research professor of policy at UCL, Professor Wilson noted that, while there were legitimate security concerns about strategic technology and human rights, the government’s ambitions were at odds with the “hard U-turn” that had occurred over the past two years. Build the UK into a “science superpower”.

“We’ve gone from heralding a new ‘golden age’ of bilateral relations with China to freezing our scientific ties,” he said.

Academic leaders say long delays have stalled scientists, students and research projects as applications doubled over the past two years. A survey of more than 1,450 students and staff by the Russell Group found that, among those who responded, it took an average of more than ten weeks for students’ applications to be approved, with some reporting waits of more than six months.

A government spokesman said: “We extended the scope of the Academic Technology Endorsement Scheme in 2020 and again next year. This means more academics from overseas must be approved before they can work in the UK.

“We reject the number because it significantly increases the number of applications we receive. Rejection rates are low – about 2% of all applications. We minimize applicant studies delays, with most applications processed within 30 working days.

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Marta Lopez

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