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Why Universities Are Still at Risk for Foreign Interference

You might be forgiven for thinking that foreign interference was yesterday’s news.

In 2021, when the Parliamentary Joint Committee for Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) delivered its report into national security risks affecting the higher education sector, there was a rush of public interest reporting. Universities were told to “harden” their posture against foreign interference and espionage. International students were advised and supported to report allegations of intimidation by foreign actors, whether posing as debt collectorscorruption hunters or even officers from foreign police stations. The PJCIS even recommended the government exercise its “veto powers” to negate an agreement between Monash University and COMAC, an aerospace company part owned by the Chinese military.

Did you know the Counter Foreign Interference Coordinator – the sole individual charged with “coordinating Australia’s whole-of-government efforts to respond to acts of foreign interference” – has been in place since 2018, and even changed hands in July this year? Even a call for a “campaign of active transparency” by the University Foreign Interference Taskforce has been met with relative silence out of Canberra.

But these national security risks to Australian universities haven’t vanished.

Last month, ASIO released a resource, Protect Your Research: Collaborate with Care, a 28-page document to identify, recognise and respond to approaches by foreign agents seeking to undermine Australian university research.

And last week, the Senate Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media released its report into foreign interference on social media platforms in Australia. In particular, the report found politically motivated disinformation had been detected in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, and that “the information Australians receive on these platforms is being influenced by directions from foreign authoritarian governments”.

Researchers also need to be educated, not just about the specific nature of the threats they are facing, but what they are supposed to do about it.

And China isn’t the only one in the headlines. The Australian also reported last week on an apparent decree issued by Iran that permits its military “maximum access” to Iranian universities and their staff. The purpose of that access? Apparently to use international research partnerships with Western universities to acquire sensitive research.

Why are universities continuing to be a target? There are several possible reasons.

First, the government hasn’t really taken up the PJCIS recommendations, even after two years. One of the recommendations – which would have required ASIO to provide more information to universities to enable them to understand, detect and deal with national security risks – has been officially disregarded. Recommendations to deal with intimidation on campuses and to provide additional security risk management information to universities were also not endorsed by the government.

Second, Australia’s entry into AUKUS means more than just submarines and a fantastic opportunity to grow our advanced Defence capabilities. It also means that Australian researchers and industry will soon have access to shared information from the United States and United Kingdom on hypersonic weapons, undersea robotics, quantum computers as well as cyber- and electronic warfare.

Unsurprisingly, countries that don’t support Australia’s national interests – or those of the AUKUS – would be more than happy to steal those technologies from our universities, who might be less security-conscious than the average Defence industry partner or manufacturer. That said, some institutions are joining the Defence Industry Security Program (DISP) to uplift their security awareness and defensive posture ahead of AUKUS.

Third, Australian universities are open, transparent and collaborative institutions. Most (if not all) academics engage in the pursuit of “academic freedom”, which involves the freedom to teach, discuss and research topics even if they are controversial or unpopular. That freedom is considered so vital that the government commissioned two separate inquiries before implementing a “Model Code for the Protection of Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom”, which was drafted by former High Court justice Robert French.

In that kind of environment, Australian universities can be incredibly reluctant to implement restrictions or limits on what can be researched, or by who. Delaying or refusing visas to students who come from authoritarian countries or “high-risk” backgrounds also hurts Australia’s international reputation.

These risks aren’t going away: they are a pervasive and insidious threat to Australia’s liberal democratic values.

So, what’s needed must be a recalibration of our legal and policy settings when it comes to sensitive research in our universities. But it makes no sense to do that in a vacuum – universities will need to fully engage with the process of rewriting Australia’s national security legislation to better recognise how universities will operate in the future.

The next step involves better delineation between our law enforcement and intelligence agencies, and our universities, as to who will hold and treat the different types of risk for national security threats. Researchers also need to be educated, not just about the specific nature of the threats they are facing, but what they are supposed to do about them. Dealing with the risks doesn’t mean closing up shop and never collaborating – it’s about mitigating the risk that is posed.

After that, Australia’s response becomes decidedly political. The government needs to get its priorities right on securing our research institutions, because a crunch point is coming. The government is currently consulting on the Universities Accord, the document that will shape university development and funding to 2035 and beyond. Yet nowhere in that document is any discussion of the national security risks our universities face.

These risks aren’t going away: they are a pervasive and insidious threat to Australia’s liberal democratic values. That threat requires a real, substantial and balanced conversation between government, the university sector and civil society. Anything less risks the very values of freedom of speech and the spirit of inquiry that our universities strive to uphold.

Source : The Interpreter