Foreign states are targeting sensitive research, university chiefs were told by the UK’s spymasters as the Government considered measures to toughen up security.

Vice chancellors from 24 leading institutions, including Oxford and Cambridge universities and Imperial College London were briefed on the threat by MI5 head Ken McCallum and National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) chief Felicity Oswald.

Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden announced plans for a consultation on a package of measures, which could include looking at key university personnel being given security clearance and a strengthened process to improve the transparency of funding.

The measures will be focused on a small proportion of academic work, with a particular focus on research with potential dual uses in civilian and military life.

The Government ordered a review of protections for higher education in its refreshed foreign and security policy last year amid concerns that hostile states, particularly China, were gaining undue influence over the sector.

Mr Dowden has previously warned that some universities’ reliance on overseas funding could leave them open to being “influenced, exploited, or even coerced” by a foreign power.

Following Thursday’s security briefing, Mr Dowden said: “For a millennium, our universities have thrived on being open – open to ideas, open to innovation, open to being independent of Government.

“This is not about erecting fences, this is about balancing evolving threats and protecting the integrity and security of our great institutions.”

MI5 director general Ken McCallum speech
MI5 director general Ken McCallum briefed vice chancellors (Yui Mok/PA)

The consultation will explore proposals to protect cutting-edge technology under development in sensitive sectors that are being targeted by states intent on stealing intellectual property to enhance their own economic and military capabilities.

The NCSC and the National Protective Security Agency have also launched a new tool to help universities assess their own research security.

Science and Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan said: “I believe that universities are on the front lines of a battle for information.

“Maintaining the UK’s world-leading reputation as an academic superpower relies on having strong safeguards to protect research from those who wish to do us harm.”

Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group of leading research universities, said: “Russell Group universities take their national security responsibilities incredibly seriously and already work closely with government and the intelligence community to help protect UK breakthroughs in fields like AI, which are important to our national interest.

“But we also recognise security is a dynamic and evolving challenge which means we need the right expertise and intelligence to keep pace with this.”

Universities UK chief executive Vivienne Stern said: “For several years, Universities UK has worked with Government to ensure that universities are supported and equipped to recognise and mitigate risks to national security.

“This is important and necessary, and we welcome the Government’s approach to working hand in hand with us to get the mechanisms right.”