Powers under the new Freedom of Speech Act allow investigations into the Chinese-run institutes if university interference is alleged.
Confucius Institutes (CIs) attempting to stifle debate at English universities could face investigation under new free-speech legislation, the higher education watchdog has said.
Susan Lapworth, chief executive of the Office for Students (OfS), said new powers could be used to examine claims that the Chinese-run institutes are curbing free speech.
The Freedom of Speech Act, which came into force in May, means complaints alleging CI interference can be fully probed.
Her comments come in the wake of heightened concern surrounding Chinese influence in Britain following the arrest of a parliamentary researcher accused of spying for Beijing.
In July, a report by the Intelligence and Security Committee found that while the UK’s 29 CIs carried out “legitimate activities” such as promoting Chinese culture and language teaching, they were run and part-funded by the Hanban, a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) controlled educational organisation under the regime’s central propaganda department.
The MPs said the institutes were involved in trying to police debate at British universities about the CCP and monitoring Chinese students.
Under the new act, universities have a duty to promote free speech and a complaints system within the OfS for students and staff who feel that their lawful free speech has been hindered.
Speaking to the newspaper, Ms. Lapworth said CI concerns might start to feature in her organisation’s free-speech casework.
“We anticipate having to do a bit more thinking about this, in particular as we move towards the complaint scheme,” she said.
“It is likely we will be brought some of those issues if they are kind of real, live issues for people […] we will have to look at them carefully and reach a view.”
While the OfS cannot directly fine CIs, it could sanction their host university if they fail to promote freedom of speech.
Ms. Lapworth said the legislation made clear it applied to “things that are happening on the university premises.”
Britain currently hosts the highest number of CIs in the world.
Universities falling foul of the rules can be hit by a penalty of up to 2 percent of their teaching income or £500,000, “whichever is higher.”
The new powers mean universities will have to think carefully about how they deal with on-site CIs, or whether they could host them at all, said Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.
“Governing bodies of universities have to actively promote free speech,” the think tank chief told The Telegraph.
“Simply telling your Confucius Institute to ‘butt out’ is not sufficient.
“It will affect not only those with existing Confucius Institutes but also any who might have been contemplating having a deeper relationship with Chinese institutions.”
The Epoch Times contacted the Chinese Embassy for comment.
In June, the OfS warned English universities were at financial risk owing to an over-reliance on Chinese and other international students.
The watchdog wrote to a number of high-risk universities, asking them to lay out contingency plans to protect their financial sustainability.
Sam Dunning, director of charity UK-China Transparency, also warned that universities were at a “fundamental systematic risk” owing to the recruitment process of Chinese staff for CIs.
Mr. Dunning said British universities now “have to deal with” the CIs in light of the Freedom of Speech Act that was passed into law last month.