Some University of British Columbia students starting online studies next week will see a new kind of disclaimer on course outlines — this course could be illegal and even dangerous to access, depending on where you are.
A letter sent to education faculty members on Wednesday requests — but doesn’t require — that professors include a warning on course outlines to students taking the online courses in other countries.
“Some UBC courses might cover topics that are censored or considered illegal by non-Canadian governments,” the recommended statement from Andrew Szeri, UBC’s vice-president academic.
“This may include, but is not limited to, human rights, representative government, defamation, obscenity, gender or sexuality, and historical or current geopolitical controversies,” the warning says.
While UBC is “strongly committed to academic freedom” it has no sway over international governments, the warning says, and students should “exercise caution” when choosing courses this semester.
The letter also includes a warning for students. “Students should be mindful that when they partake in class discussions or communicate to the members of the class, that for some students living abroad, sensitive material might result in repercussions,” it cautions.
The university said no one was available for an interview.
In an emailed statement, spokesperson Matthew Ramsey said the university's goal is “to protect our students and uphold the principle of academic freedom in all instances.”
Asked why the warning comes less than a week before classes begin, Ramsey wrote “the process in developing this policy has involved careful consideration and consultation.” The university has moved almost entirely to online courses because of COVID-19.
Jie Cheng, associate professor in the Peter A. Allard School of Law, said UBC students studying online while abroad face the challenges of access to technology and the law of their land.
“If the students are not in Canada, there is a risk of them not being able to access the online meeting or some of the information online,” Cheng told The Tyee via email.
“The technical problem may severely damage the ability of the students to participate in the class and to benefit from the rich online resources.”
Not every country allows access to remote learning staples like Zoom, and time zones pose a challenge. Other countries may block certain resources containing material considered illicit. Or studying from a different time zone than the rest of your class could put you behind if lecture attendance is mandatory.
But content is also an issue, from politically sensitive materials to LGBTQ2S+ topics to human rights.
Cheng teaches both Chinese and Hong Kong law, touching on the histories of relations between both regions. The Chinese government’s recent passing of a national security law in Hong Kong criminalizing criticism or dissent has American universities posting their own warnings to students about course content and student safety.
But Cheng says the risk for UBC students studying in China or Hong Kong is low.
“In the past, controversial issues have been discussed in the class and in the public forum without problem,” Cheng said. “As an instructor, it is my responsibility to let the students know the story from different sides. That won’t change in the future.
“As a lawyer, my understanding of the Hong Kong National Security Law is that its targets are political activities, not academic activities. The risk of students and academics being prosecuted is very low. We should be cautious, but there is no reason to get paranoid.”
Despite the low risks, Cheng says she will not be recording or publishing the student discussion sections of her lectures to ensure students’ comments and opinions stay within the class.
“As an instructor, I will make sure that all course materials are accessible and available to all students in the first place,” she said.
Port Coquitlam Mayor Brad West, a prominent critic of the provincial and federal government’s relationship with the Chinese government, says the fact the university feels it must put a warning on course content for international students is yet another reason the relationship between the two countries needs to change.
“I’m sure that Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig felt that the risk to their personal safety was low,” said West, referring to the Canadian businessman and former diplomat who have been in Chinese custody on suspicion of espionage since December 2018.
“UBC has been under the microscope with regards to trying to build links with the Chinese government,” he said. “For me, it’s another example that demonstrates we need to have a very significant change in our relationship with the government of China. And I think this is an issue in which the public is far ahead of government officials.”
It is not just the Chinese government that has laws against the content of some UBC courses.
A school of nursing course on human sexuality, for example, could have significant repercussions in the 70 countries where homosexuality is outlawed, says school director Elizabeth Saewyc.
“In a lot of countries, detailed sexual health content is also not considered appropriate, even if it’s heterosexual content,” she said. Course content about human rights, different religions or even history can be risky depending on where students are.
“I think the university is trying to help students be alerted to the possibilities and make sure that they’re cautious if they’re in a place where some subjects may not be OK to study,” she said, “and that, that might actually mean they want to think about postponing a course.”
In the letter to faculty, the university said it is working to broaden the acceptable reasons for dropping a course without academic penalty to ensure students are not forced to choose between a course they need to graduate and their personal safety.
Cole Evans, president of the Alma Mater Society, UBC’s students’ union, says the union is asking the university for compassion during evaluations, as well, when students are studying overseas.
Evans said the warning should have been provided to students and faculty much earlier, even given the stresses and time crunch involved in transitioning to an almost entirely online system.
“We’re concerned that there is a lack of proactive planning around this situation,” he said.
Leo Shin, associate professor of Chinese history in UBC’s history department, says it’s too early to say what kind of impact international laws against studying controversial topics may have on international students’ education.
“Online learning does open some other doors and provide additional opportunities for students, international or otherwise. I don’t think we have the data yet to do a proper cost-benefit analysis,” he said in an email to The Tyee.
Shin says the university has made it clear in the letter that they support academic freedom, and — like every professor interviewed — believes no one is asking professors to censor their courses.
But it is also too early to tell if there will be an impact on academic freedom, he said.
“Even in the best of times, academic freedom is something that is constantly negotiated. Having to teach online in the climate we are in means that this negotiation, between freedom on the one hand and safety on the other, has been made that much more difficult.”