Self-censorship on issues relating to China is “the most important freedom of speech issue” facing British universities, a former minister has warned.

Lord (Jo) Johnson, former universities minister, has suggested that China’s influence on academic research, which cover its own interests, is a “genuine and real threat to freedom of speech”.

He highlighted that the Chinese Government had recently sanctioned academics in Europe for undertaking their research.

The former minister’s comments came as the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will be introduced in Parliament.

Academics, students or visiting speakers to English universities will be able to seek compensation through the courts if they suffer loss from a breach of the free speech duties under the Bill.

For the first time, students’ unions at universities would be required to take steps to secure lawful freedom of speech for members and visiting speakers.

Speaking at a webinar run by Times Higher Education (THE), Lord Johnson, the Prime Minister’s brother and a fellow at King’s College and the Harvard Kennedy School, said: “I think, to my mind, the most important freedom of speech issue facing universities today relates to self-censorship around China.

“I think, to my mind, that is going to be a very, very important long-running structural question.

“And that’s why it’s so important that universities can contract with China in full confidence that they are doing so using a common framework that’s established by the sector and supported by their own government and possibly also in alliance with other governments around the world.

“That will enable them to genuinely have freedom of speech and freedom of research in all areas that might touch on China’s interests.

“That to me is a genuine and real threat to freedom of speech and I think if the (free speech) bill can perhaps help address that issue too it will serve a very useful purpose.”

Lord Johnson was universities and science minister until September 2019 when he resigned from his brother’s administration citing an “unresolvable tension” between his family loyalty and the national interest.

In March, a report co-authored by Lord Johnson said the UK’s dependence on a “neo-totalitarian” power for the financial health and research output of its universities represented a “point of vulnerability”.

The paper, produced by King’s College London, the Harvard Kennedy School and the Institute for Scientific Information, said higher education (HE) exports to China now represent the UK’s single largest service sector exports to any country while research collaboration had increased from fewer than 100 co-authored papers before 1990 to 16,267 in 2019.

Speaking at the event on UK-China research collaboration, Lord Johnson said: “We’re in a situation where the core values of the academy are potentially at risk.

“We’ve seen China in recent weeks put researchers in Europe under sanction for undertaking their research activities.”

Earlier this year, Newcastle academic Joanne Nicola Smith Finley was among nine UK citizens who were hit with sanctions by the Chinese government after highlighting Beijing’s human rights abuses.

At the time, Dr Smith Finley said she had been sanctioned “for ongoing research speaking the truth about human rights violations” against Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang.

On sanctions, Lord Johnson added: “We need to recognise this as an absolutely central issue that touches on academic freedom, freedom of speech, and all of the values which the sector holds dear.

“And these threats are predominantly coming from the risks that arise from our research relationship with China and our dependence on Chinese financial flows.”

Lord Johnson also criticised a recent Universities UK (UUK) report – on managing security-related risks that can result from international collaboration – for failing to “mention China once”.

He added that he was “stunned” at the breadth and depth of the UK-China research relationship that has developed over the past decade which has been “unexamined from a public policy perspective”.

A UUK spokeswoman said: “Universities UK has an extensive programme of work to support the strengthening of processes and structures designed to identify and mitigate risk in international collaboration, including research, and has produced detailed guidance on this topic to support the sector.

“This guidance reflects the fact that the range of risks described in the guidance can occur in relation to a number of overseas partnerships, and the risks may vary from place to place and will change over time.

“No individual country is named in the guidance, but that does not mean that we are blind to country-specific risks. For instance, UUK issued a statement in response to the Chinese Government’s sanctions against UK academic Dr Joanne Smith Finley.

“UUK has frequent discussions with the UK Government on this topic and is working to ensure that the UK university sector is well informed and able to draw on appropriate support in managing their activities.”