Controversial Confucius institutes 'play an important role' and do not pose security threat, insists SNP education secretary

Chinese state-backed education centres in Scottish schools and universities play an "important role" and do not pose a security threat, Scotland's education secretary has said.

Shirley-Anne Somerville defended Confucius institutes, which promote Chinese culture and language on campuses, but have been a source of ongoing controversy.

Conservative leadership hopeful Rishi Sunak has vowed to close them down and “kick the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) out of our universities” if he wins the keys to Number 10, declaring China “the biggest long-term threat to Britain”.

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Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville

Former rectors of the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow have also raised concerns about the institutes.

Ms Somerville was asked about the issue while visiting Stirling High School on exam results day. The school has had a Confucius hub since 2015.

The education secretary said the Chinese Government does not have a say in how Confucius institutes are run within schools.

She said: "This is a way of young people being able to experience Mandarin, being able to experience and learn about Chinese culture.

"But there's no interference in Scottish education because we have Confucius institutes within our schools."

Asked if the same was true for universities, she said: "Universities are perfectly entitled to have Confucius institutes.

"They will have policies themselves about how they want to take that forward.

"But certainly, the schools process, there's no interference, there's no say in decision-making about what happens in Confucius institutes.

"Within university settings, they are up to the universities on how to set them up.

"But of course, clearly, we have commitments to academic free speech, as does every institution."

Ms Somerville said the institutes "play an important role", adding: "But I think it's important that universities ensure that the important role that they have doesn't take away from anything else that the university feels important, for example freedom of speech and their commitment to human rights."

Asked if she thought the institutes were a security threat, she said: "There's no security threat to young people learning Mandarin and learning about Chinese culture.

"I think we have a responsibility to have young people that are global citizens, and within that they will learn about different cultures, different situations, and the importance of human rights and freedom of speech within them."

Asked about students from China and Hong Kong who may feel threatened or spied on by the institutes, the education secretary said: "I think that bears no relation to the fact that I'm in a Confucius institute for an exam results day."

There have long been questions over Confucius institutes.

The national centre, the Confucius Institute for Scotland, is based at the University of Edinburgh and was set up with backing from the Scottish Government, as well as Chinese authorities. Other branches are found at Glasgow, Strathclyde, Heriot Watt and Aberdeen universities, as well as in schools.

It previously emerged Scottish universities accepted more than £13 million in funding over the past 15 years from the Chinese Ministry of Education and the Chinese Language Council, known as Hanban.

Aamer Anwar, a prominent lawyer and activist and a former rector at the University of Glasgow, has said there is no question the institutes should be closed, citing human rights abuses in China among other factors.

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