Taskforce to protect research from foreign interference

The Australian federal government is to establish a new university ‘foreign interference taskforce’ to protect sensitive research from foreign governments.

Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan announced on 28 August that the taskforce would aim to prevent and respond to cyber-security incidents “and protect Australia’s intellectual property and research”.

It would consist of working groups to prevent and respond to such incidents, and ensure that collaboration with foreign entities was transparent and did not harm Australian interests.

The taskforce would include 50% representation from the university sector and 50% from government agencies, Tehan said.

“Its work will focus on four strategic areas – cyber-security, research and intellectual property, foreign collaboration, and culture and communication,” he said.

Tehan said the taskforce was needed, in part, to “protect against deception, undue influence, unauthorised disclosure or disruption to our research, intellectual property and research community”.

“The taskforce will complement work in the defence sector to prevent the transfer of defence and dual-use technology to those who may use it contrary to Australia’s interests,” he said.

Safeguards against foreign interference

Universities Australia, the organisation representing higher education institutions, said its members would work collaboratively with the government “to enhance the existing safeguards against foreign interference in our civil society”.

“Universities have strong working relationships with government agencies on security matters, and regularly seek advice to safeguard their people, research and systems,” said Universities Australia Chair Professor Deborah Terry.

Australian universities had worked with government for decades to protect intellectual property and to rebuff attempts to breach Australian security, Terry said.

“But in a world of ever more complex risks, we will work together through a new taskforce to add to the current protections, while preserving the openness and collaboration that is crucial to the success of Australia’s world-class university system.”

She warned that a “careful balance” needed to be struck: “We must continue to safeguard our security without undermining the invaluable asset of our openness.”

Academic objections

Australian academics had previously strongly objected to government plans to give security agencies a veto over research collaboration between the nation’s universities and those in certain other countries, notably China.

But Tehan said at the time that universities must protect ‘sensitive research’ from any involvement by foreign governments.

He had also previously denied that guidelines issued by the federal government on research collaboration between Australian and foreign universities gave security agencies any veto powers.

But universities expressed alarm at the government’s growing concerns about foreign influence being exerted on the nation’s campuses, particularly through the spread of China-controlled Confucius Institutes and the growing numbers of Chinese students enrolling in the institutions.

Although Tehan said Australia’s university sector had not become “captive to any country”, he added that all research collaboration with any foreign nation “must be in the Australian national interest”.

As a result, universities would be required to work with government departments to protect “sensitive research”, he said.

Under Tehan’s plans, universities will also be required to work with security agencies to combat foreign interference and survey their students about freedom of speech on campus.

Chinese influence

With government concerns increasing about foreign influence on campuses, notably from China, Tehan had earlier denied that new government guidelines on research collaboration would give security agencies an effective veto.

He also defended universities against a report by the Centre for Independent Studies that claimed the institutions had become financially vulnerable because of their dependence on international students, particularly those from China.

Tehan said the university sector had not “become captive to any country”, although he added that discussions with the institutions would establish “best practice guidelines” when it involved foreign interference and cyber-security.

“One of the most important things here is that government and the university sector need to work very closely on these issues – and we need to put in place clear markers as to what is expected,” he said.

“All research with whatever country must be in the Australian national interest and this could require ‘markers’ to be put in place to ring-fence certain sensitive research.”

Tehan said the guidelines would not necessarily mean universities would have to seek permission from government agencies, “but might mean an understanding of what technologies might have dual uses”.

UTS abandons China link

As a result of the increasing debate about the influence China may be exerting on higher education institutions, the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) announced it would review a AU$10million (US$6.7 million) partnership with a Chinese state-owned military technology company, CETC.

This is also the company that developed an app that Chinese security forces use to track and detain Muslim Uyghur citizens in Xinjiang, China.

Critics of the increasing involvement of China in the nation’s higher education institutions warned that any decision by the Chinese government to impose currency controls or limit enrolments would endanger universities with high numbers of Chinese students.