The announcement comes during a time of protracted concerns over Chinese-influence on universities campuses, and almost two years after the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation warned of an “insidious threat” of foreign interference at universities.
“In a world of ever more complex risks, we will work together through a new taskforce”
“The Australian university sector and the broader Australian community benefit significantly from the presence of international students and collaboration with international researchers and scholars,” he said in the lead up to the announcement at the AFR Higher Education Summit in Brisbane.
“It is because of these benefits that we see from international engagement that I have asked the sector to work closely with the government to ensure that universities have the strongest defences in place to protect their information and people.”
At the official announcement, Tehan added the guidelines would be finalised in November 2019, and the University Foreign Interference Taskforce would comprise of an equal number of university representatives, and national security and the Department of Education and Training representatives.
The taskforce will also focus on four strategic areas, creating working groups for cybersecurity, research and intellectual property, foreign collaboration, and culture and communication.
While not directly referenced in either of his speeches, stakeholders have interpreted Tehan’s announcement as a response to concerns over China wielding influence on universities and the potential loss of sensitive research.
“The China context as I refer to it, where nothing and everything is about China in 2019, has concentrated political minds,” Group of Eight chief executive Vicki Thomson said.
“When discussing this funding aspect of the future of research and China, I always ask for calm minds and sensible words to prevail.”
Universities Australia, meanwhile, said its members wanted to work closely with the government in this area.
“Australian universities have worked with the government for decades to protect our intellectual property and to rebuff attempts to breach our security,” UA chair Deborah Terry said.
“But in a world of ever more complex risks, we will work together through a new taskforce to add to the current protections, while preserving the openness and collaboration that is crucial to the success of Australia’s world-class university system.”
It is understood UA will also be represented on the taskforce.