Director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Duncan Lewis said in a statement that foreign powers were “clandestinely seeking to shape the opinions of members of the Australian public, of our media organisations and our government officials in order to advance their country’s own political objectives.”
In particular, he noted there was a “need to be very conscious of the possibilities of foreign interference in our universities”.
“That can go to a range of issues,” he told the committee.
“These characteristics apply as well to our government level interactions; something that both sides have come to recognise, although not always necessarily accept”
“It can go to the behaviour of foreign students, it can go to the behaviour of foreign consular staff in relation to university lecturers, it can go to the atmospherics in universities.”
When questioned further, Lewis declined to provide additional information.
While not directly mentioned, many interpreted his remarks to be in regards to Chinese influence on Australian universities, with the security chief directly referencing a speech by Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Frances Adamson last month.
During the speech, made at the University of Adelaide’s Confucius Institute, Adamson said, “the silencing of anyone in [Australia’s] society, from students, to lecturers, to our politicians, is an affront to our values.”
Comparing the two countries’ values, she added Australians preferred to be earnest in their friendships compared to their Chinese counterparts, who preferred “not to offend”.
“These characteristics apply as well to our government level interactions; something that both sides have come to recognise, although not always necessarily accept,” Adamson, who was formerly Australia’s ambassador to China, said.
“Enforced silence runs counter to academic freedom. It is only by discussion, and of course, discussion which is courteous, that falsehoods can be corrected.”
IEAA chief executive Phil Honeywood told The PIE News that throughout history, most countries’ education systems had been affected by some form of foreign influence and that with a heavy reliance on Chinese students, the potential for perceived and real interference had become more apparent in Australia.
“Any university located in a Western democratic nation must be true to its ‘independence of thought’ and academic freedom framework. To be otherwise is to compromise the very principles on which these education institutions were founded,” he said.
“We should acknowledge that whilst they are here they are free to gather to celebrate appropriately”
Honeywood added that it was also government’s role to remind foreign powers and students that they were studying in a global community and that the media had a similar role to play if it had “clear evidence” that Australia was being influenced.
Foreign powers and particularly China interfering within Australia’s education systems has become an ongoing concern since a report from earlier this year found the Chinese Communist Party had undertaken activities including threatening Chinese dissidents in Australia and swaying influence over Chinese student associations.
But education minister Simon Birmingham has distanced the government from claims of Chinese interference.
Birmingham said the government had been “very clear in the view that the academic integrities and freedoms… are of paramount importance,” and similarly held the media account for some of the concerns.
“I’d say, in relation to misconceptions, that it’s unhelpful sometimes when media outlets, in particular, decide to frame stories in a way that suggests there are profound problems, with little evidence in the stories to back up those suggestions,” he said.
Australia’s international education industry has continued its period of growth, surpassing 2016 student numbers in August this year, 29% of whom were from China.