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Australia to curb foreign interference at universities

The Australian government has backed measures to prevent foreign interference on university campuses, but stopped short of cracking down further on controversial Confucius Institutes. 

The government supported the establishment of a working group to address on-campus intimidation. Photo: Unsplash

The 56 existing arrangements between Australian universities and Confucius Institutes are shared publicly

The Albanese government supported fully or in principle 21 of the 27 recommendations outlined in a parliamentary report completed in March 2022 into national security risks affecting higher education and research. 

The committee recommended that Chinese-funded Confucius Institute agreements with host institutions should include free speech clauses and give universities the final say in curriculum content and the appointment of staff. 

But the government left these decisions in the hands of universities and the University Foreign Interference Taskforce, a group made up of higher education and government agency representatives established in 2019. 

The 56 existing arrangements between Australian universities and Confucius Institutes are already shared publicly, as recommended by the committee, and the government said the foreign affairs minister may act where arrangements are inconsistent with Australian foreign policy. 

Confucius Institutes have faced increasing scrutiny in recent years as national security fears mount. Vicki Thomson, chief executive of The Group of Eight, said the organisation recognised there is “some international debate surrounding this issue, most notably in the UK and the US”.

“We will continue to liaise with our member universities and government on the implications of this recommendation,” she added. 

The government also supported the establishment of a working group to address on-campus intimidation and the reporting of students or staff to foreign embassies, following concerns that pro-democracy Chinese students on Australian campuses are being threatened by classmates.

It also backed calls for UFIT to consider introducing anonymous assignments, which could enable international students to criticise their own governments in academic work without fear of reprisal. 

The government said it will continue to provide information to universities about the threat of espionage and foreign interference and it will also continue to support the diversification of the international student population.  

“Australian universities and research institutions are attractive targets for foreign interference”

“Australian universities and research institutions are attractive targets for foreign interference given their important role in developing the technologies that underpin the future of Australia’s economy and defence and security capabilities,” said home affairs minister Clare O’Neil. 

“The Australian government works closely with higher education providers to strengthen resilience to foreign interference risks and protect students, staff and research from foreign actors and intelligence services.”

But Canberra refused to commit to publishing a report on incidents of harassment, intimidation and censorship linked to foreign interference activities on campuses, arguing it is difficult to establish the motivating factor behind these attacks. 

The responses revealed that UFIT has established a working group to identify critical technologies that “require heightened due diligence” when considering international PhD students and research partnerships. 

Australian academics have expressed concerns that delays granting visas to PhD students from certain countries, including Pakistan, Iran and China, are damaging the country’s reputation as a research base and will make future recruitment harder. 

Education minister Jason Clare acknowledged the work that the UFIT is already doing to protect institutions from foreign interference, including establishing risk management guidelines.

“UFIT brings leaders in the sector and government together to support and provide better protection for universities against foreign interference,” Clare said.

“This is vital work that ensures Australia remains a secure research and education partner and a safe and supportive environment for international students.”

Universities Australia welcomed the government’s response, describing UFIT’s work as “world-leading”. 

“It is vitally important that we strike the right balance between the openness that is fundamental to the kind of collaborative international research that gave us a fighting chance during the Covid-19 pandemic, and strong security safeguards,” said Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson. 

The Group of Eight said that the government’s responses would build on the “strong foundation” its universities have in place to protect national security. 

“As a founding and continuing member of UFIT, the Go8 recognises and backs the need to ensure that the world class research conducted by our members  is protected and supported so it can continue to protect and support Australia’s economy, communities and people,” Thomson said. 

It comes as the Canadian government this week announced a new policy that will impose controls on funding given to “sensitive” research if any of the researchers are connected to foreign states that pose a risk to Canada’s national security. 

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