Despite criticism from academics, Minister Dijkgraaf is pressing ahead with his plan. He will present a bill as soon as possible – but a little later than planned – that will enable the national screening of students and researchers from abroad.
Universities are increasingly aware of the risk of espionage and foreign influence, according to a review the minister sent to the House of Representatives last Monday. All universities are looking to increase knowledge security and are appointing dedicated officers to monitor this.
But when exactly does a student or researcher from outside the EU constitute a threat to national security? To be able to answer this question, universities argue that they need a clear framework. Otherwise, there is a risk of discrimination and stigmatisation. “Universities cannot and do not want to reject promising applicants or valued colleagues based solely on where they come from”, they write in a letter to the minister.
Concerns about Chinese influence
Although the minister is sympathetic to this point, he has yet to address it. Nor has he responded to the objections raised by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) to the systematic screening of foreign academics and students. They argue that this would unduly impede international cooperation and violate academic freedom.
But he is listening to the criticism. He is taking a little more time to find the “right balance” and draft a good bill, he says in his letter. Issues at hand include the definition of “high-risk fields” and “sensitive technologies”.
Concerns about China are particularly acute at the moment. For example, it has been reported that researchers at Delft University of Technology have inadvertently helped the Chinese army with their work. Last year, it also emerged that China was the main financier of the VU Amsterdam’s human rights centre, of all places. The centre has since been closed.
Thanks in part to Russia’s war in Ukraine and the trade war between the United States and China over advanced chips, international cooperation is coming under increasing scrutiny. Dijkgraaf: “State actors are increasingly using knowledge and innovation as strategic instruments of power.”
Last year, the minister instructed higher education institutions to review the measures they take to counter espionage and foreign influence. Their own reports now reveal that these policies are still in their infancy.
Universities sometimes find it difficult to identify exactly which powers they are working with, the report says. “International consortia sometimes consist of dozens of partners, and a European company may be a subsidiary of a parent company from a high-risk country.”
Some universities also disagree with the definition of knowledge security if commercial interests are also at stake. “Several universities see the extension of national security to include the protection of Dutch innovation as an undesirable development.”
The minister has asked Justis, a special department of the Ministry of Security and Justice, if it can undertake the screening of foreign students and researchers. Around the end of 2023/start of 2024, Dijkgraaf will present a response to the objections of the academic community. He will also present the review of policies on knowledge security in higher professional education.