Congress must track foreign money in higher education

Congress must track foreign money in higher education

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The recent congressional testimonies of university presidents before the House of Representatives have brought attention to the risks of antisemitism on campus. Following the money is an obvious next step to see how this problem has grown: U.S. colleges and universities have received billions from Qatar over the years, and Qatari money has been shown to correlate with antisemitic incidents on campus. A recent study from the Network Contagion Research Institute revealed how institutions that took money from Middle Eastern countries faced an average of 300 percent more antisemitic incidents on their campuses.

But the harm to American higher education goes beyond Qatar and antisemitism. We need to take a closer look at what money is coming into our universities from other countries — especially China and Russia — and the other consequences it can have. Chinese contributions often correlate with the campus censorship of ethnic minorities such as Uyghurs and Tibetans, and Chinese contributions have even led to scientific espionage. Qatari money has also led to censorship on campus: multiple universities with Qatari campuses have caved to Qatari demands for demands for censorship. And in the case of Russia, even before MIT kicked the Russian Skolkovo Foundation off campus following the Russia-Ukraine war, the FBI had expressed concern that the Foundation was engaging in scientific espionage. 

We only know about these contributions because of Section 117 of the Higher Education Act of 1965. Section 117 mandates that postsecondary institutions report foreign contributions they receive above $250,000 to the Department of Education. A recent update in the Section 117 database provides complete data for 2022 and partial data for 2023, offering new insights into what money is coming into our education system. Overall contributions seem to have declined since the pandemic — from roughly $4 billion in 2019 to roughly $1 billion both in 2021 and 2022. However, given that colleges and universities have historically not fully complied with Section 117, there is a strong chance that they are not reporting all their contributions. Because reporting contribution data is done voluntarily, the Department of Education has limited enforcement power to make these institutions properly report their contributions. 

Still, according to the available data, only China has had an increase in contributions since the COVID-19 drop, but contributions have not still returned to what they were in 2019. In 2019 alone, Chinese entities contributed $122 million to American postsecondary institutions, but since then they have given only another $180 million over three and a half years, including $30 million in the first six months of 2023. 

Qatar, which used to be one of the largest contributors of money to American postsecondary institutions, has drastically pared back contributions. In 2019, Qatar contributed $353 million to American postsecondary institutions. In 2023, Qatar only contributed $1 million.

Russia has contributed far less — only $15 million from 1981 to 2020. But as noted above, even this small amount has enabled something as serious as scientific espionage. Russian spies have also recruited individuals based out of American postsecondary institutions. 

Recognizing the risks of foreign contributions, Congress has given them greater attention in recent years. In 2019, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations reported on the influence China has on our postsecondary institutions. The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s recent report recommended that Congress amend the Higher Education Act of 1965 to require an interagency review to research the impact Chinese money has on postsecondary education institutions. 

Congress has been trying to reform Section 117 for years. Legislation introduced in 2021 by then-Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) would have lowered reporting thresholds, and an earlier version of the CHIPS and Science Act, passed last year, also included a lowered Section 117 reporting threshold. The former did not become law, and the latter provision did not stay in the enacted version of the CHIPS and Science Act. 

Now, House Republicans have made another attempt by recently introducing the DETERRENT Act. The legislation would reform Section 117 by lowering the reporting threshold of foreign contributions from $250,000 to $50,000, requiring contributions to display the name of the contributing entity, and creating a Section 117 report database. Although one database already exists, the legislation’s new database would be a marked improvement over it by collecting the reporting documents that postsecondary institutions have to submit to the Department of Education. Making these reports public would provide a clear picture of what universities and colleges are receiving money from what countries.

Still, the legislation could be stronger. It would require Congress to anonymize names in the new database, but members of the public need data on what specific entities are contributing to American postsecondary institutions. In previous years, this information on contributor names was public, and we should return to this higher standard of transparency. 

The public needs to know who is contributing money to American postsecondary institutions. Strengthening reporting requirements is a matter of national security.

Lars Erik Schönander is policy technologist at the Foundation for American Innovation.

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