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Foreign interference is “serious threat” to Australia universities

Chinese students in Australia “suffer from the authoritarian reach of the Chinese government”, Australian senator James Paterson told The PIE News following the release of a new report on foreign interference in Australian universities.

A parliamentary joint committee made 27 recommendations to tackle foreign interference Photo: unsplash

The report stated that universities need urgent guidance on penalties for students who report on classmates to foreign governments

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, of which Paterson is chair, last week outlined 27 recommendations to address the “serious threats” to higher education and research posed by foreign interference, including tackling on-campus intimidation of students.

Universities need to “confront the disturbing reality that too many students are fearful for their safety on campus,” said Paterson, adding that the Chinese students “hoping to get a Western, liberal education in Australia” are “among the biggest victims of foreign interference”.

The report stated that universities need urgent guidance on penalties for students who report on classmates to foreign governments, following evidence heard by the enquiry that pro-democracy Chinese students had been threatened with being reported to the Chinese government by other students.

The Chinese government has “engaged in a campaign of intimidation, harassment, censorship and intelligence gathering at Australian universities”, said Paterson. “Universities must do more to protect them, other students and academics from these threats.”

“Providing a way to ensure that these individuals are protected from the actions of authoritarian states is big”

Universities outside of Australia can also make use of this report, according to Bryce Barros, China affairs analyst at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, who points to recommendations 4, 5, and 6 – which address on-campus intimidation – as valuable guidance for handling these incidents.

“More times than not, the victims of China’s malign influence are dissidents and individuals belonging to ethnic minority groups in China that are living abroad (i.e. Tibetans, Uyghurs),” Barros said.

“Providing a way to ensure that these individuals are protected from the actions of not only China but other authoritarian states is big.”

The report also labels Confucius institutes – Chinese government-funded educational institutions on university campuses – a “risk” to “academic freedom and student welfare”, and asks the foreign minister to take action but does not call for their closure.

Confucius institutes have faced growing scrutiny in recent years, with Human Rights Watch calling them “extensions of the Chinese government” in 2019, the same year that the state of New South Wales ended its china-funded Confucius programs in schools and replaced it with a culture program funded by the Australian government.

“Our universities are very alive to the risks of foreign interference”

Universities say they are committed to supporting Australia’s national security and implementing the recommendations.

“Our universities are very alive to the risks of foreign interference,” said Catriona Jackson, chief executive of Universities Australia, while Group of Eight, which represents Australia’s leading research universities, said its commitment to Australia’s national security was “unwavering”.

“Many of the recommendations reflect work universities are already doing to balance national security interests with open, global collaboration,” Jackson told The PIE News.

“First and foremost, this means treating student cohorts of all backgrounds with respect and equality. Universities will not tolerate stigmatisation in any form, for any reason.”

The report recognises the role of the University Foreign Interference Taskforce, which was established in August 2019 to “better protect universities”.

“We will continue to lead the way in ensuring that Australia is collaborating with world leading researchers and institutions as we strive for the big breakthroughs Australia needs while managing and mitigating risks,” said Jackson.

The committee’s 15-month inquiry heard evidence from groups including Human Rights Watch, which published its own report last June outlining threats faced by Chinese pro-democracy students on Australian campuses.

Chinese students currently represent the greatest proportion of foreign students at Australian universities.

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