Universities are pushing hard against new proposed laws that will give the Commonwealth the power to scrutinise, and potentially veto, collaboration with foreign governments or entities.
Representatives from Australia’s top universities have fronted a senate inquiry into the Foreign Relations Bill, with many opposing the new measure.
Vicki Thomson, CEO of the Group of Eight (Go8) universities, described the bill as a fishing expedition “casting a net far and wide to ascertain what can be scooped up.”
Ensnaring universities in the net would damage the economy, she told the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee on Oct. 13.
“It will damage the potential for future technologies, future manufacturing, future jobs,” Thomson said. “The Go8 can’t afford such a hit, and neither can Australia.”
The Go8 are some of the oldest and most well-known institutions in the country.
The Foreign Relations Bill was announced on Aug. 27 by Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Foreign Minister Marise Payne. It gives the federal government authority to assess agreements between foreign entities, and Australian universities and sub-national governments (state and local).
Experts have pointed to certain agreements signed with Beijing including Victoria’s Belt and Road Initiative, sister-city arrangements, and Confucius Institutes as potentially undermining national security.
Professor Clive Hamilton, author of Silent Invasion, said the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was circumventing the federal government by targeting sub-national authorities and universities.
“One element of the Chinese Communist Party strategy is known as … ‘using the local to surround the centre,’ that is, using good relations with local actors to pressure national governments,” he told the inquiry on Oct. 12.
The new Bill will be applied retroactively and will require agreements with foreign entities to be noted on a public register.
George Williams, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of New South Wales (UNSW), said the Bill should not be retrospective and was critical saying it would extend to “every conceivable form of collaboration,” according to his submission.
Professor Williams complained the Bill would create a significant regulatory burden extending across thousands of agreements, echoing concerns from the tertiary peak body Universities Australia.
Michael Shoebridge of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said that if the number of agreements was in the thousands per institution, then it was critical that the government and universities “get a grip on the kinds of partnerships” that were occurring.
“Each university needs visibility of its own range of international partnerships, and so should have appropriate monitoring and reporting systems in place already,” he told The Epoch Times on Oct. 13.
“If there is indeed a gap in how universities are currently managing their international partnerships, the new law will help fix that. There needs to be a design to international partnerships, not happenstance,” he added.
Shoebridge also played down concerns the law could negatively affect partnerships with institutions from trusted jurisdictions (including the United States, United Kingdom, and Japan).
The Russell Group of Universities in the United Kingdom (representing Oxford and Cambridge University) argued in a submission that the law would create uncertainty and risk around any future academic collaboration.
Shoebridge however said this was a misunderstanding of the Bill’s intent, and the main concern surrounding collaborations was with Chinese institutions, where research could be assisting the technological development of the People’s Liberation Army.
University of Queensland (UQ) student-activist Drew Pavlou, who was struck by Chinese students during a protest on campus grounds in 2019, said Australian universities were relying too heavily on the China market, which compelled them to adopt a “pro-Beijing” stance.
“UQ relies on China for approximately one-fifth of its budget,” he told the inquiry. “(Former) Vice-Chancellor Peter Hoj, it was revealed by Senator James Paterson using parliamentary privilege, was afforded a $200,000 bonus in 2019, in part for his efforts in developing the relationship with China.”
He said one-fifth of UQ’s total budget could “evaporate” if the Chinese authorities decided the university was too politically sensitive to do business with.
“UQ is so heavily reliant on China, economically, that it’s unwilling to protect freedom of speech on campus. That is why this legislation is necessary, I believe, to protect freedom of speech where the universities can no longer do that themselves,” he added.
Before the pandemic, Australia had the second-highest Chinese international students numbers in the world (127,176) following the United States (369,548).
Three universities in Sydney (University of Sydney, University of New South Wales, and the University of Technology Sydney) had more Chinese students than all 33 public universities in California combined.