Australia May Be Arming Hostile Governments, Calls for an Inquiry

By Victoria Kelly-Clark
Victoria Kelly-Clark
Victoria Kelly-Clark
Victoria Kelly-Clark is an Australian based reporter who focuses on national politics and the geopolitical environment in the Asia-pacific region, the Middle East and Central Asia.
March 8, 2023Updated: March 8, 2023

The Coalition is calling for a federal investigation into reports that Australian universities could be arming hostile foreign governments with skilled cyber hackers.

This comes after allegations from academic whistleblowers revealed that Australian universities were potentially training Chinese hackers through teaching collaborations with Chinese universities.

Shadow Minister for Cybersecurity and Countering Foreign Interference, Senator James Paterson, has called on the federal government to launch an urgent investigation into the reports via the federal government’s Universities Foreign Interference Taskforce (UFIT).

“The mass training of students offshore to potentially go to work for the very agencies that are targeting Australia is deeply disturbing and concerning. I’ve worked with these whistleblowers directly, and I’m alarmed by their reports,” Paterson said.

“Our universities have said they’re on top of this issue.

“Clearly, they’re not, and more action is required.”

UFIT was set up in 2019 to “provide better protection for universities against foreign interference.”

Most recently, UFIT, in collaboration with the university sector, generated a set of guidelines to help manage and engage with risk to deepen resilience against foreign interference in the university sector.

The Epoch Times reached out to Universities Australia, the peak body for the sector, to ask if universities in the country should be mindful of the geopolitical risks students from hostile countries pose. Acting Chief Executive Peter Chesworth responded in a statement that said the sector was able to respond to the national security challenges because of UFIT.

He also said: “All courses offered by Australian universities are regulated and assessed by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency.”

Experts Call for Security Clearances For All Cyber Students

Australian cyber experts raised the alarm on Tuesday in a report by The Australian, noting they were concerned that universities were teaching students in China the techniques that would allow them to initiate attacks on civilian infrastructure like power grids, banks and services agencies.

Cybersecurity expert Val Wats said that Australian universities should require security clearances for all students studying high-level cyber security tactics, including those residing in Australia.

“It’s a big problem and a scary one,” he told The Australian. “There needs to be regulation of what information is given to ­foreigners that can be used against us. If you give them the knowledge and understanding to bring down systems, you literally sabotage yourself, and that is what is happening.”

Echoing Wats, Paterson noted that Australia’s critical infrastructure and government networks are “under near constant attacks” from our adversaries.

“Among the course content, which is being alleged by whistleblowers to be taught to students in China, is tactics about how to attack critical civilian infrastructure,” he said.

“We need action from the government here. I’m calling on the Albanese government, particularly through the Universities Foreign Interference Taskforce, to launch an urgent investigation to get to the bottom of these very serious reports. ”

Paterson said he was currently working with whistleblower academic staff who had told him they were self-censoring coursework, so they did not teach this material to overseas students. He noted that this behaviour was not robust protection for Australia in the long term.

Australian Universities Refuse to Discriminate Against Students

Meanwhile, Australian universities have refused to discriminate against students enrolled in their courses, with a spokesperson for the University of Sydney telling The Epoch Times that the university does not “discriminate on the grounds of race or nationality when delivering coursework” and that all course content is available to all our enrolled students.

The spokesperson also noted that the university works hard to comply with all laws and manage risks.

 “We work carefully and diligently to comply with all laws and identify and manage relevant risks in a constantly changing legal and operating environment,” the spokesperson said. 

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the University of New South Wales, which runs the academic sector of the Australian Defence Force Academy, told The Australian that the university works with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of Home Affairs to guarantee that any overseas partnerships are the national interest.

“The teaching of cybersecurity to international students, both onshore and offshore, and domestic students is identical,” the spokesperson said.

“We support and encourage our researchers to collaborate with international partners in line with all applicable Australian and international laws and government guidelines and with the university’s objectives, values and policies.”