THE inventor Sir James Dyson has warned that Chinese students are infiltrating British universities to steal technological and scientific secrets and even planting software bugs to relay the information to China.
Dyson, best known for inventing the bagless vacuum cleaner, said he had evidence that the bugs were left by postgraduates to ensure the thefts continued after they had returned home.
He said the extent to which foreign students dominated many science, technology and engineering research posts, often paid for by the British taxpayer, was “madness”.
“As an exporter and someone developing technology here, it’s very disheartening to see these universities being used by foreign countries and foreign companies,” said Dyson.
Universities acknowledge the threat from espionage, particularly by Chinese students, and are taking measures to counter it. Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “We are very aware this is going on and we are taking it very seriously.”
The concerns have emerged just days after Theresa May, the home secretary, watered down plans to slash the number of foreign students in Britain. Dyson said: “Britain is very proud about the number of foreign students we educate at our universities, but actually all we are doing is educating our competitors.
“Foreign governments and businesses are prepared to pay quite a lot of money for people to study at Cambridge, Imperial College and other Russell [Group] universities because they appreciate the value of these research posts.
“They go back home taking that science and technology knowledge with them and then they start competing with us. This is mad – it is madness.
“I’ve seen frightening examples. Bugs are even left in computers so that the information continues to be transmitted after the researchers have returned home.”
A number of such cases have been uncovered at British universities, with leading research institutions the most heavily targeted.
David Willetts, the universities minister, said: “This is not something foreign students should be doing in the UK. I will study very carefully the evidence that James Dyson has got.”
Academics who go to China and other “risky” countries are advised to leave their laptops and mobile phones at home or to take disposable ones. This is to avoid information being stolen from them or of software bugs being planted which send data to China once the academic has returned to Britain.
Nearly 57,000 Chinese now study in the UK, a rise of more than 21 per cent since 2009. Although business, finance and economics are the most popular subjects, there are more than 3,000 Chinese studying electronic engineering and another 1,510 on computer science courses.
Manchester, with 1,890 Chinese in the academic year 2009-10, is the most popular university overall, while Southampton has the highest number of postgraduates from China – 945.
Some individual courses are dominated by foreign students. At Warwick, 45 of the 70 computer science postgraduate students and 95 out of 183 of those studying engineering come from outside the European Union.
Dyson has broader concerns about the small numbers of British students who are prepared to take up postgraduate research posts because they are paid as little as pounds 20,000 a year. He fears that higher tuition fees will only encourage more science, engineering and technology graduates to take better-paid jobs in industry.