V. Select Papers on Key Issues and Topics Discussed at the Conference

International Collaboration and the Problem of Teaching in Authoritarian Countries 

Richard Kool

Abstract colourful painting.
Photo by Josep Martins
International Collaboration
and theProblem of Teaching in Authoritarian Countries  

In this paper, I want to examine one component of international cooperation in higher education; the risk to faculty members teaching particular kinds of subject matter in institutions located within authoritarian regimes—and consider how higher education institutions might address this issue.



Since 2014, I have taught a course, Leadership and Sustainable Development, in the Master of Arts in Environment and Management (MEM) program that the School of Environment and Sustainability of Royal Roads University offers in China to Chinese students through the Tianjin University of Technology.

Over my three trips to China (2014, 2016, 2018) I have seen increasing control exerted by the Communist Party of China (CPC) over many aspects of life there, and the increasing influence of the CPC in post-secondary education. I was aware of, for example, Document 9, Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere, which was released in September 2013 (Buckley, 2013; Li, 2013): the Party leadership was being urged to guard against seven political perils” which include, for example:

  • Promoting Western Constitutional Democracy: An attempt to undermine the current leadership and the socialism with Chinese characteristics system of governance
  • Promoting “universal values” in an attempt to weaken the theoretical foundations of the Party’s leadership
  • Promoting civil society in an attempt to dismantle the ruling party’s social foundation

(Document 9: A ChinaFile Translation: How Much Is a Hardline Party Directive Shaping China’s Current Political Climate?, 2013)

As the rule of the CPC under President Xi Jinping seemed to tighten, I found, for example, that some of my translators seemed uncomfortable translating when I spoke about topics like “courageous followership” or “power”. By 2018, I was spending hours with Google Translate providing more and more of my PowerPoint slides and videoclips with both English and Chinese text so that I could be sure (to some extent at least) that I wasn’t being censored by the translator.

When two Canadians, businessman Michael Spavor and former diplomat Michael Kovrig, were arrested and incarcerated in December 2018 a few months after I had returned to Canada, I wondered about my safety if I returned to China to teach in 2020. Those concerns were highlighted in December 2019, when The New York Times reported on the “growing number of “student information officers” who keep tabs on their professors’ ideological views […] to help root out teachers who show any sign of disloyalty to President Xi Jinping and the ruling Communist Party” (Hernández, 2019). I wondered if it was dangerous to teach a course on leadership inside a dictatorship.

In June 2020, the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong provoked the central government to promulgate a new National Security Law: “The four major offenses in the law — separatism, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign countries — are ambiguously worded and give the authorities extensive power to target activists who criticize the party, activists say” (Hernández, 2020). These new laws were announced at a time when, were it not for the COVID-19 ban on travel, I would have been in China teaching about leadership at a time when those actually demonstrating leadership were being jailed. Had I been teaching then, should I have been extra-cautious given the nature of the course I was teaching? Would it have made sense to self-censor so as to not potentially offend the official dogma and thus keep myself safe?

The Question

This whole experience left me wondering about the enterprise of western universities offering academic programs in potentially risky political contexts. My concerns were not about China in particular, but instead related to the question: should, in the context of internationalization of higher education, universities be sending faculty to countries with weak academic freedom/freedom of expression statutes, or into situations where their academic freedom to teach without worry as to the political/legal implications of what they are saying may be compromised, and where the free and open expression of course content may put the faculty member at risk?

This can be broadened even further, going beyond a concern for the content of a particular instructor’s course, to: should institutions of higher education be formally involved in political jurisdictions where faculty might be at risk because of their political views, personal history, gender, sexual orientation or identity, or religious or ethnic identity? 

I am concerned in this paper with the establishment of overseas partnerships for in-country student education, i.e., offering programs in a country for students from that country. I do not address the issue of international students coming to Canada, of Canadian students taking educational excursions overseas, or of faculty wishing to carry out research overseas.

The Problem

Over past decades, universities in North America and Europe have had an increasing presence in developing countries and those with rapidly growing economies but without a fully developed higher education system. While many universities have worked hard to attract foreign students to come to them, a smaller number have gone to host countries and set up “satellite programs” to educate in-country students “at home.” As a result, a number of university faculty are spending time living and teaching students in countries with political systems that range from “free” to “unfree” (i.e., authoritarian and dictatorial) (Freedom House, 2020).

I find it interesting that the UN’s SDG4, which calls on nations to “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”, doesn’t tie the provision of “quality education” to the necessity of academic staff having the freedom to teach and carry out research in a way congruent with widely accepted understandings of academic freedom. In a recent paper which examines “the ways in which higher education can help to achieve and exceed the outcomes enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goals”, the authors note that their evidence “shows that limited academic freedom and institutional autonomy impede the full realisation of the potential of higher education” [to achieve those developmental goals] (Chankseliani et al., 2020, p. 109).

What is worrying to me is that a number of universities have created partnerships and opened campuses in countries run by authoritarian and even dictatorial government and where those partner institutions may offer seriously “limited academic freedom”. For example, and based on the limited information available (List of American universities and colleges abroad, 2020, Dec 7), 54 US universities have overseas campuses in places other than western Europe: while 21 of those campuses are in “free” countries (39%), 13 are in “partly free” (24%) and 20 are in “not free” (37%) countries (Freedom House, 2020).

Academic staff who travel to and work in partly to fully authoritarian contexts operate in and accommodate to a far less-permissive academic environment than where their home institutions are located. This less-permissive environment may not be a problem for those faculty members working in the natural and applied sciences; however, academics from liberal democracies who work in the arts, humanities or social sciences are often dependent on the protections offered by 1) a shared understanding of academic freedom, 2) by contractual / collective agreements defining and protecting members academic freedom, or 3) by the law and legal precedents (Robinson, 2019). These protections are not present in dictatorships.

In response to the risk posed by authoritarian governments to foreign academics who might engage in speech normally not permitted in those states, some universities working in places such as China have incorporated academic freedom language in their various partnership agreements. 

Most U.S. universities we reviewed include provisions in written agreements with their Chinese partners or other policies intended to uphold academic freedom or U.S. academic standards… Most universities we reviewed include language in their written agreements or other policies that either embody a protection of academic freedom or indicate that the institution in China will adhere to academic standards commensurate with those at their U.S. campus (United States Government Accountability Office, 2016, pp. 15-16).

There is no evidence, however, that the agreements signed by these institutions for example, would be of any value were an American academic to be detained for violations of the China’s laws against certain kinds of speech. For example, the recent tension between the US and China have led to potential risks to American academics:

Beijing has threatened to arrest American academics in retaliation for the prosecution of Chinese scientists charged with US visa offences, it has been claimed. Chinese officials have made repeated threats through multiple channels, including the American embassy in  Beijing, according to unnamed US government sources cited by The Wall Street Journal. The officials are demanding that the US drop legal proceedings against several Chinese scholars begun in the past few months. Beijing has adopted similar tactics against other governments that displease it in a growing atmosphere of hostility with the West. (Parry, 2020)

In the 2016 report cited above, the authors state:

“Several faculty members who had also taught at Chinese universities not affiliated with a U.S. university noted that students and teachers could not talk as freely at the Chinese university, with one faculty member noting he had specifically been told not to discuss certain subjects while at the Chinese university”. (p. 20)

There are three topics that most foreign faculty learn, one way or another, not to talk about in China: Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen (referring to the death of perhaps hundreds of Chinese students and workers in and around Tiananmen Square in June 1989) (Das, 2019).

Faculty members teaching in more authoritarian contexts, and their in-country students, may experience academic restriction such as:

  • The inability to access academic resources through institution libraries and the open internet
  • The perceived necessity of self-censorship, resulting in a narrowing of what might be taught and thus the modification of course content to keep within permissible boundaries
  • The acceptance of racist, sexist or discriminatory behaviors in the classroom e.g., women sitting at the back or not being allowed to speak 

Institutions from democracies operating in authoritarian countries may feel also pressured to restrict which faculty members are permitted to teach in their off-shore programs by virtue of their gender, age, religion, political or sexual orientation etc. 

Engaging in the work of teaching and research can be difficult or even dangerous when one approaches the boundaries of any authoritarian government’s political or intellectual tolerance. In some countries that universities from liberal democracies are now engaged with, the space for open inquiry is shrinking (Furstenberg et al., 2020) (e.g., Turkey has had a recent 31point decline in aggregate Freedom House score; Venezuela had a 23 point decline had a 23 point decline (Buyon et al., 2020, p. 14). To safely operate in those “partly free” spaces may necessitate some careful self-censoring by individual teachers; to teach in “not free” countries may nearly always require some self-censorship.

Possible Guidelines for Decision-Making

I believe that any Canadian university should have guidelines that govern how decisions are made regarding that institution’s collaboration with off-shore higher-education institution, especially when those institutions are located in authoritarian regimes. These guidelines should be both demonstrations of a university’s commitment to supporting democratic institutions and values, and of their commitment to individual faculty members’ safety by not asking them to expose themselves to risks they might incur as they carry out their assigned tasks in a less-permissive political context. At the same time, institutional concern for equity, inclusion and diversity, often expressed in collective agreements or university policies, should also help to inform choices of international academic partnerships.

I propose using two credible tools for helping to determine which countries a university a) should or should not be engaged with in terms of offering in-country programming; or b) should send faculty members to teach in academic programs.

Freedom House (2020) is a Washington DC-based non-partisan organization created in 1941 that “is founded on the core conviction that freedom flourishes in democratic nations where governments are accountable to their people.” Since 1973, it has produced an annual report, Freedom in the World(Freedom House, 2020) based on a set of social science indicators– electoral process, political pluralism and participation, the functioning of the government, freedom of expression and of belief, associational and organizational rights, the rule of law, and personal autonomy and individual rights– to rank countries as either free, partly free or not free. Freedom House Rankings (FHR) are widely used in political science research and correlate highly with other measures of democracy (Buyon et al., 2020).

The relationship between free, partly free and not free countries and the ability to teach without fear of retribution is well-demonstrated in an analysis using the Academic Freedom Index(AFI) (Grimm & Saliba, 2017; Kinzelbach et al., 2020) created by the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin (https://www.gppi.net/). This index uses a variety of approaches (event data, expert surveys and large-number questionnaires) to examine three dimensions of academic freedom; personal, legal and economic (Grimm & Saliba, 2017).

The relationship between the Freedom House scores and the AFI is very clear (See Figure 1): there is little academic freedom in not free societies. 

Figure 1


Even more striking is a comparison of the means of the two indices when the data set is split into two equal-sized groups (Table 1). The AFI means of the not free countries indicate that there is little academic freedom in those contexts, and any professor teaching there takes a risk when they stray, intentionally or not, away from what is acceptable to the regime in power.

Table 1

Mean Low half Mean High half statistic
FHR (range from 0-100) 33 (unfree) 79 (free) t=-13.35, p<.0001
AFI (range from 0-1) .39 (D status or less) .87 (A status) t=-16.25, p<.0001

While there are many different considerations that would go into the formation of academic relationships with foreign institutions and governments, the risks to faculty as outlined above need to be given serious consideration, as should the moral risks to any institution running programs in collaboration with repressive regimes.


Buckley, C. (2013). China takes aim at Western ideas. New York Times19.

Buyon, N., Linzer, I., Roylance, T., & Slipowitz, A. (2020). Freedom in the World 2020: A Leaderless Struggle for Democracy. https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/2020-02/FIW_2020_REPORT_BOOKLET_Final.pdf

Chankseliani, M., Qoraboyev, I., & Gimranova, D. (2021). Higher education contributing to local, national, and global development: new empirical and conceptual insights. Higher Education81(1), 109-127.

Das, S. (2019, June 23). Beijing leans on UK dons to steer clear of hot topics. The Sunday Times (London). https://advance-lexis-com.ezproxy.royalroads.ca/api/document?collection=news&id=urn:contentItem:5WD9-GV71-DYTY-C24X-00000-00&context=1516831

Document 9: A ChinaFile Translation: How Much Is a Hardline Party Directive Shaping China’s Current Political Climate? (2013, November 8). ChinaFile. https://www.chinafile.com/document-9-chinafile-translation

Freedom House. (2020). Freedom in the world. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world

Furstenberg, S., Prelec, T., & Heathershaw, J. (2020). The internationalization of universities and the repression of Academic Freedom. In N. Schenkkan, I. Linzer, S. Furstenberg, & J. Heathershaw (Eds.), Perspectives on “Everyday” Transnational Repression in an Age of Globalization. Freedom House. https://freedomhouse.org/report/special-report/2020/internationalization-universities-and-repression-academic-freedom

Grimm, J., & Saliba, I. (2017). Free research in fearful times: Conceptualizing an index to monitor academic freedom. Interdisciplinary Political Studies3(1), 41-75. https://doi.org/10.1285/i20398573v3n1p41

Hernández, J. C. (2019, Nov. 1). Professors, Beware. In China, Student Spies Might Be Watching. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/01/world/asia/china-student-informers.html

Hernández, J. C. (2020, July 13). Harsh penalties, vaguely defined crimes: Hong Kong’s security law explained. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/30/world/asia/hong-kong-security-law-explain.html

Kinzelbach, K., Saliba, I., Spannage, J., & Quinn, R. (2020). Free universities: putting the academic freedom index into action. Global Public Policy Institute. https://www.gppi.net/media/KinzelbachEtAl_2020_Free_Universities.pdf

Li, R. (2013, May 10). Seven subjects off limits for teaching, Chinese universities told. South China Morning Post. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1234453/seven-subjects-limits-teaching-chinese-universities-told

List of American universities and colleges abroad. (2020, December 7). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_American_universities_and_colleges_abroad

Parry, R. L. (2020, October 18). Beijing threatens to arrest American academics as tit-for-tat row escalates. The Times (London). https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/beijing-threatens-us-academics-in-rising-tit-for-tat-diplomatic-battle-6qzf7053c 

Robinson, D. (2019). Academic freedom in Canada: a labor law right: union contracts protect academic freedom. Academe (Fall). https://www.aaup.org/article/academic-freedom-canada-labor-law-right#.X-9pC-B6pTY

United States Government Accountability Office. (2016). CHINA: U.S. universities in China emphasize academic freedom but face internet censorship and other challenges. GAO. https://www.gao.gov/assets/680/679322.pdf

Author: Kool, R. (2021). International collaboration and the problem of teaching in authoritarian countries. York University, Toronto.

Contact: Rick Kool, Royal Roads University. Rick.Kool@RoyalRoads.ca

DOI: 10.25071/10315/38628_03