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Foreign interference guidelines welcomed by Australian universities

The release of the Australian government’s much anticipated foreign interference guidelines, which seek to protect students, research and academic integrity, have been welcomed by the country’s higher education sector.

Australia's university sector has welcomed the new foreign influence guidelines. Photo: Noelle Otto/PexelsAustralia's university sector has welcomed the new foreign influence guidelines. Photo: Noelle Otto/Pexels

The Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme bill was passed in 2018

Released in mid-November, the Guidelines to Counter Foreign Interference In The Australian University Sector come just over two months after education minister Dan Tehan announced plans to create a Foreign Interference Taskforce to oversee the document.

“Sector inclusion in its process [has been positive] rather than take the heavy-handed over-reach approach of the US”

“The Morrison Government is working with universities to ensure they have the necessary protections for students, research data, and academic integrity,” Tehan said.

“Working with universities and national security agencies, we have taken action to ensure universities understand the risks and know what steps to take to protect themselves.”

Covering areas including cybersecurity, knowledge sharing, due diligence, and governance and risk frameworks, the guidelines are the latest in a series of moves to prevent foreign influence and interference, particularly within universities after potential threats were identified in 2017.

Mid-2018 saw the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme bill pass Australia’s upper house with the bulk of Universities Australia’s recommendations included, after the original draft appeared to potentially affect those campaigning on behalf of international students.

The decision to collaborate with the higher education sector – the Foreign Interference Taskforce included equal numbers of university and government representatives – was praised by stakeholders.

“This has genuinely been an equal partnership between universities and government,” Universities Australia chair Deborah Terry said.

“Our shared aim has been to build on existing protections against foreign interference, without damaging the openness and global engagement essential to Australia’s strengths and values.”

“[This] is vital for progress of humanity and Australia’s economic prosperity”

Terry added while global research collaboration was an asset to Australia, putting in measures to ensure it was safeguarded was in the nation’s interests.

According to Group of Eight chief executive Vicki Thomson, the guidelines also put Australia at the forefront of western countries’ dealings with foreign interference.

An early-November report indicated “alarming” evidence of Chinese influence on UK university campuses.

“It has been positive that the Morrison Government has chosen to seek sector inclusion in its process rather than take the heavy-handed over-reach approach of the US; which would have stifled academic freedom, ruined invaluable research partnerships and added regulatory burden and additional compliance,” Thomson said.

“The Go8 has understood the changing world in which the sector operates and hopes that the country-agnostic guidelines will be seen by the Australian community as a valuable first step in ensuring this iterative process can work for both Government and universities.”

Thomson, who in August asked for “calm minds and sensible words to prevail”, added the guidelines and taskforce further improved her members’ “strong existing due diligence around research collaboration”.

Chair of the Australian Technology Network Attila Brungs, meanwhile, said the new guidelines were a foundation upon which universities could confidently collaborate with international partners.

“Australia’s long-term national interest is at the heart of everything a university does. Societal benefit as well as ethical, human rights and security considerations are at the forefront of our research collaborations,” he said.

“Increasing our focus on cybersecurity and sharing other best practice will be key to Australia keeping the international research collaboration engine running, which is vital for the progress of humanity and Australia’s economic prosperity.”

“We have taken action to ensure universities understand the risks”

According to the released document, the guidelines are not prescriptive or intended to be an additional compliance or regulatory requirement, however, in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Tehan said noncompliance could negatively impact funding for universities.

“Ultimately, there are some fairly blunt instruments that are available to the government, but my hope would be that we wouldn’t need to use them,” he told the paper, adding he wanted to “see action, not just words”.

The Foreign Interference Taskforce is expected to be an ongoing co-operative process between universities and the government.

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