Hundreds of Chinese postgraduate students will reportedly be banned from studying sensitive subjects at British universities, claimed a report by The Times. They include subjects such as artificial intelligence (AI), chemistry, physics, maths, computer science and a range of engineering courses. 

From Oct 1. 2020, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will “expand the remit of its security vetting for overseas applicants wanting to study subjects relating to national security, amid concerns about the theft of intellectual property”, said the report. Ministers at the national security committee reportedly signed off plans for stricter rules earlier this year; once in place, this new measure is expected to block hundreds of Chinese students from entering Britain while visas for those already enrolled will be revoked if they are deemed to pose a risk.

Chinese postgraduate students have been under increasing scrutiny in countries such as the UK, US and Australia as they beef up response to espionage claims. The Times said the latest move comes in response to growing concerns in the government about Chinese students acquiring technology and knowledge that could benefit the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Last month, the US State Department had announced that it would revoke the visas of more than 1,000 Chinese citizens, in line with a presidential order issued in May, said The Economist. It takes aim at students and researchers with links to any entity in China that “implements or supports” the country’s self-declared “military-civil fusion” strategy — a government effort to promote the flow of technology from civilian institutions for military purposes.

Stemming the flow of Chinese postgraduate students 

Chinese students accounted for 12% of all postgraduates studying at UK universities in 2018/19. The government is tightening the rules for checking the credentials of international students taking subjects related to national security. Its Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS) applies to all international students who are subject to UK immigration control and are intending to study at the postgraduate level in certain sensitive subjects. notes that the subjects are those where students’ knowledge could be used in programmes to develop Advanced Conventional Military Technology (ACMT), weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) or their means of delivery. International students must apply for an ATAS certificate before they can study in the UK. The government has now expanded it to include “advanced conventional military technology”, such as aircraft and cyber technology; from next month, the government will also ask applicants to disclose any military links.

A Whitehall source was quoted by The Times saying that the ATAS system is being expanded as security threats are constantly evolving. “It’s no surprise that we attract some of the brightest talents from around the world but there are those who would seek to exploit our position as a leader in science and innovation. Today’s changes will help to further protect our national security interests,” said the spokesperson.

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