Learning is a dangerous business

Poor education stunts home-grown talent and undermines national security

“Civilisation is in a race between education and catastrophe”, H.G. Wells observed. But what if education itself is the catastrophe? Competition for overseas students has become big business worldwide. By 2030 Britain hopes to host 600,000 international higher education students, up from 458,000 in 2017-18 and whose annual tuition fees are already from 2.5 to six times domestic ones.

Importing ready-made talent has been cheaper and easier than nurturing it here through long-term investment in a world-leading national education system, built to spot and develop different talents from early on. Thriving economies seek the best talent regardless of origin, but Britain and others face an existential challenge. Much of the overseas talent they increasingly depend on comes from authoritarian states looking to steal cutting-edge research and ideas, undermining our prosperity and security.

Sir Richard Dearlove, Chief of MI6 from 1999 to 2004, believes

. . . our universities are an open door in crucial areas of sensitive research and state theft of IP [intellectual property] is a significant problem . . . Remember that [scientist] A.Q. Khan originally built the Pakistani nuclear weapons programme by clever distribution of his PhD students to mainly Western science faculties.

A former senior Oxbridge academic says their own university recently uncovered “Chinese and Russian penetration—via funding mechanisms” to “influence, censor, disrupt and even to take control”.

Britain hosts 10 of the 16 university laboratories worldwide which are either jointly run by Chinese defence firms or getting large sums from them. And dozens more British universities work with Chinese military institutes on dual-use research such as 5G and artificial intelligence (AI). Though most collaboration is still with America, partnerships with China have more than doubled since 2013.

Christopher Wray, director of the FBI, sees China as “the broadest, most complicated, most long-term counter-intelligence threat we face”, adding that “Russia is . . . fighting to stay relevant after the fall of the Soviet Union. They’re fighting today’s fight. China is fighting tomorrow’s fight.” And we are losing it in our classrooms.

The latest annual figures for “Five Eyes” countries—the intelligence alliance of America, Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand—show the presence of 2.65m overseas higher education students, including 812,000 from China. In America, for example, foreign academics received 37 per cent of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) PhDs awarded in 2018; and Chinese students received a quarter of all advanced STEM degrees. That same year, Chinese secondary school pupils topped OECD rankings for reading, maths and science skills among 79 countries. American schoolchildren ranked far lower in maths and only 14 per cent of them could tell fact from opinion in reading tests.

Overseas students adding a combined £84 billion to “Five Eyes” GDP may explain the resistance to change. But at what price? Not counting the full cost of patent violations, America lost an estimated £766 billion to Chinese trade secret theft and economic espionage via cyber-attacks in 2018 alone—20 times Britain’s security and defence budget that year.

Matt Brazil, co-author of Chinese Communist Espionage, explains: “Technology acquisition efforts are centrally directed to meet the current . . . five-year plan, ‘China 2025’ goals and other requirements . . . through a variety of open, semi-legal and clandestine means.” Whilst “Ministry of State Security [foreign intelligence] and military efforts are clandestine . . . state-owned enterprises also are deputised . . . to . . . steal technology themselves”.

Marcus Kolga, an expert in foreign disinformation at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa, notes Canadian intelligence warnings that “China and Russia” monitor and coerce “students, faculty and university officials” to further political influence. Activist rallies in Toronto last summer in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement faced “counter-protestors, many of whom were reportedly Chinese international students” pressured “to participate by the regime”.

Another frontline state is Australia, says Jasmin Mujanović, an academic and counter-influence expert. Many “aggressive Chinese clandestine operations” there, he says, happen “at the intersections of organised crime, real estate, education and research”. The government is finally acting, recently passing anti-influence laws and collaborating with universities on anti-interference guidelines published last November. Alarm over influence laws going unenforced have led to public calls for Australia to borrow from Israel’s doctrine of pre-emptive deterrence and go after hostile states.

Israel can balance security with reliance on foreign-born talent for several reasons, says Avner Barnea, research fellow at the National Security Studies Center at Haifa University. Unlike in many countries, innovation is not primarily government-led. High counter-intelligence and security awareness means that the chances of foreign countries acquiring sensitive information without being caught are low. More-over, as “an immigrants’ country . . . the immigration of many people with high education” is no problem. One should add that newcomers typically share a common faith and aims, including integrating in, developing and protecting the country; not always the case elsewhere.

Few if any countries can replicate the Israeli model. But all advanced industrial democracies seeking to defend themselves from authoritarian adversaries will have to think hard about how to change their educational systems. The old model—commercially marketed, while captured by self-interested producers in terms of its structure and processes—is failing. This is true both in terms of providing the workforce and citizenry needed for a modern economy, and also with regard to national security: keeping intellectual property secure, and protecting a climate of free speech and independent intellectual inquiry.

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