Australia has strengthened its university foreign interference guidelines to protect students, staff, and research by assisting the process of better identifying and responding to risks.
Australia’s education institutions will be required to assess staff at risk of foreign interference. These identified individuals will be required to reveal any links to foreign governments, military, or intelligence organisations.
Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said espionage and foreign interference posed a challenge to Australia’s democracy.
“These updated guidelines are more important than ever—with international students set to return to many Australian jurisdictions soon, we need to ensure our university campuses embody the free, open, transparent debate that is so vital to an Australian education, and to our way of life,” Andrews said.
Education Minister Alan Tudge said the guidelines will ensure Australia’s researchers, some of the world’s leading academics, are protected.
“We have seen that Australian universities are a target for foreign interference with foreign actors using sophisticated and deceptive means to steal Australian research and intellectual property,” Tudge said. “The Morrison Government takes research integrity very seriously and will continue to prevent efforts to steal information and interfere in our universities.”
Tudge cited the head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) who said that the leading research in universities that lead to critical technological and military breakthroughs are subject to foreign interference and stealing.
“There have been examples of universities having their finances put at risk by foreign actors in relation to that. There’s been examples of aggressive threats to steal the research at our universities. So those have been documented by ASIO itself. So, the issue is serious,” Tudge told Sky News Australia.
The strengthened guidelines come after Human Rights Watch published a report that outlined Australian universities’ failure to protect the academic freedom of students and academics who criticise the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
“Australian universities rely on the fees international students bring while turning a blind eye to concerns about harassment and surveillance by the Chinese government and its proxies,” report author Sophie McNeill said.
The report highlighted the sector’s over-reliance on income from Chinese international students, who accounted for around 1 in 10 of all students attending an Australian university in 2018.
Subsequently, this created an environment of self-censorship when it came to topics sensitive to the CCP.
Universities Australia, the peak body for Australian universities, said the sector worked closely with the government to revise the guidelines.
“Now the guidelines are finalised, the sector will work on implementing the refreshed advice,” Universities Australia Chair John Dewar said. “We will continue to adapt and update our approach as well as share good practice across all university campuses.”
“Our universities 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 whilst managing and mitigating risks.”
All Australian universities have also adopted a code to strengthen free speech on campus for students and academics.