Universities alarmed by bill on international agreements

Universities Australia, the federal body representing higher education institutions, has called on the government to scrap references to higher education institutions in new proposed international agreement laws.

A bill currently before parliament would allow the foreign minister to veto or alter a wide range of university agreements with other nations.

Universities Australia says the government should scrap all references to higher education institutions in the new act.

A parliamentary report has echoed the universities’ concerns and highlighted the need for further consultation.

The proposed Australia’s Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) Bill was published on Thursday, creating alarm in higher education circles.

Universities Australia Chief Executive Catriona Jackson said universities should be written out of the bill. “If this is not possible, then significant amendment is required,” Jackson said.

“Our primary concerns go to both the workability of these laws that will cover thousands and thousands of agreements and the deterrent effect this could have on international partnerships. These partnerships are the lifeblood of research.”

Jackson said that “at a minimum” the bill should include a list of exclusions to narrow its scope, whereas the current bill would allow the foreign minister to veto or alter a wide range of university agreements.

She said the committee that drew up the proposed act agreed with the universities’ recommendations that its definitions should be tightened and that further consultation should be undertaken with the institutions.

“Without clarification, the laws could include a huge number of ‘arrangements’. The retrospective nature of the bill would mean that the agreements captured could go back decades.”

Jackson said she was pleased to see a dissenting report calling for the minister to list reasons for any changes and that decisions could be appealed.

“Universities are equal partners with government agencies in the University Foreign Interference Taskforce, which has devised robust guidelines that build on measures to keep our institutions and intellectual property secure,” she said.

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

“Universities have regularly sought advice from government and its agencies on security matters to protect our people, research and systems,” she said.

Group of Eight response

Australia’s Group of Eight (Go8) leading research universities said it also had serious reservations about the bill, not least because it was an “unnecessary and duplicative piece of legislation” in its application to public universities.

“It is the Go8’s view that there is no evidence in any clause of the bill to suggest consideration of whether it was fit for purpose for the inclusion of the higher education sector,” the group statement said.

“There is no evidence that the sector’s global reach, which includes thousands of agreements – often long-term and economically invaluable, let alone implicitly endorsed by government – at all levels of its daily operations, was understood.”

The Go8 said the bill “heralds an unprecedented burdensome regulatory impact on universities”.

“For a sector already impacted by the economic fallout of COVID, this new administrative and reporting load will further constrain diminished resources.”

The group noted that the bill had been presented without any consideration given to the substantial administrative burden that it would place on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

This at a time when Australia was facing the “combined impact of ensuring a post-COVID economic recovery and its first recession in 29 years”.

As a result, there was a real danger the bill would not deliver on its intent to protect Australia’s foreign relations while at the same time having a range of unintended consequences “impacting negatively on Australia’s economic well-being”.

The group described the legislation as so “vague and so all-encompassing in its vast trawl” that the federal department had been unable to explain what exactly the government was “attempting to find and eradicate within universities”.

“In fact, we were advised to wait and see what happens after the bill is enacted, by which time it will be too late to seek amendments,” the group said.

It accused the government of not accepting that this level of uncertainty “simply won’t wash with overseas governments, investment funders, business and universities” seeking to enter into negotiations with the Go8 and Australia.