Australian MPs demand action on ‘sustained foreign intimidation’

Penalties for student snitches and curbs on Confucius Institutes and Thousand Talents Programme among dozens of recommendations from security committee

三月 25, 2022
Sydney, NSW, Australia, October 11, 2020. Birds like to perch on top of CCTV posts that give them a 360-degree view of their surroundings
Source: iStock

Students who denounce their classmates to overseas governments could be punished, Confucius Institutes would face restrictions and laws could be drawn up to prevent academics joining foreign talent programmes, under recommendations from a powerful Australian parliamentary committee.

Australian Research Council (ARC) grants issued over the past decade would be audited for “exposure” to foreign academic recruitment schemes, including China’s Thousand Talents Programme, and the ARC would boost penalties against grant fraud and beef up investigations of non-compliance with disclosure rules.

Legislation could also prevent universities offering dual appointments to foreign diplomats. And the federal education department would publish annual reports tallying incidents of “harassment, intimidation and censorship” orchestrated by foreign interests on Australian campuses.

The proposals are among 27 recommendations offered by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security in a “unanimous and bipartisan” report, following its 17-month inquiry into national security risks affecting Australia’s higher education and research sector.

The committee’s chair, Victorian senator James Paterson, said that the sector had made progress in addressing national security concerns. But foreign interference on campus remained a “serious threat”.

“There’s no question that students and academics have faced a sustained campaign of intimidation, harassment, censorship and intelligence gathering by foreign state governments. This resulted in the transfer of sensitive research to authoritarian regimes and their militaries, and threats to the safety of domestic and international students,” he said.

“While efforts have been made to strengthen the sector’s awareness and resilience to these threats, there is a great deal more to do to secure sensitive, taxpayer-funded research and protect students on campus.”

The report was one of three released by the committee ahead of a looming election announcement. A separate report endorses proposals to bring higher education and research under the ambit of new legislation to protect “critical infrastructure”.

The 11-member committee is comprised of upper and lower house members of parliament from the governing Liberal and opposition Labor parties. Its “headline” recommendations include a call for institutions to pursue a “campaign of active transparency” on national security risks.

The committee has also requested annual reports on universities’ adherence to the revised University Foreign Interference Taskforce (UFIT) guidelines, complete with “classified” briefings.

The report says universities that host Confucius Institutes should disclose the agreements and funding arrangements. It says “robust” academic freedom and free speech clauses should be included in agreements, and universities should retain final say over staff appointments and curriculum content “at a minimum”.

It adds that the committee would support any decision by the foreign minister to expel Confucius Institutes using her veto powers under the Foreign Relations Act.

The report also offers a strong endorsement of the UFIT, giving it a role in implementing 13 of the 27 recommendations.

The network representing research-intensive universities, the Group of Eight, said that the report acknowledged the UFIT as “the most appropriate body to manage foreign interference risks in the sector”.

Chief executive Vicki Thomson said the geopolitical situation for Australia and its universities had “changed significantly” since the emergence of Covid-19. “Political tensions have created complexities that must be managed in the national interest. Working with government and its security agencies, we have made significant progress in recent years to ensure we can meet any challenges this changing environment may present,” she said.

Universities Australia said that the committee had recognised the “constructive role” played by its members. “Our universities are very alive to the risks of foreign interference,” said chief executive Catriona Jackson. “We have proactively partnered with government and the security agencies to tackle the issues.”

Human Rights Watch said that the recommendations were “long overdue” and should be “implemented as soon as possible” so that “students and staff feel a new sense of protection and freedom”.



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