Australia’s security straitjacket causes consternation

Australian universities face more restrictions on their foreign collaboration, no matter who wins the coming election

四月 10, 2022
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Source: istock

Australian universities face an increasingly restrictive operating environment regardless of the outcome of next month’s federal election, after an influential parliamentary committee called for more constraints on the sector.

While national security issues are expected to feature heavily in the 21 May election, with campaign posters already portraying a vote for the Labor opposition as a vote for the Chinese Communist Party, the clampdown on universities appears bipartisan.

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) offered 27 recommendations to curtail foreign influence through talent recruitment programmes, Confucius Institutes and “on-campus intimidation”, including auditing a decade of research grants for evidence of conflicts of interest.

The PJCIS is drawn almost equally from the two major parties, with six Liberal members and five from Labor. Its long-awaited report, due last July, was one of four tabled by the committee on a Friday afternoon four days before the federal budget.

Go8 chief executive Vicki Thomson said the release of the “unanimous and bipartisan” report ahead of an expected election announcement suggested that national security policies affecting Australian universities would be much the same, irrespective of which party formed government.

“The PJCIS is the most powerful committee of the Australian parliament,” she said. “Other countries, like the UK and Canada, are looking very closely at [the report] as a signal for what might be coming their way.”

Sources say the PJCIS report was all but finished last June, and some recommendations – like the proposal for an “accountable authority” to look after each university’s foreign interference matters – were implemented long ago. Yet errors in the report, such as the repeated misnaming of the education department, suggest it was produced hurriedly.

The government’s security interventions have already drawn criticism for lacking clarity and imposing excessive reporting burdens. The PJCIS recommendations would push Australia further down this path, increasing government oversight in areas where evidence of problems is questionable.

For example, universities would be obliged to report instances of overseas-induced “harassment, intimidation and censorship” every year. Sceptics say the few documented cases to date are regularly rehashed to create an inflated impression of foreign meddling.

But others say intimidation on campus is commonplace but rarely reported. “Clear policies…to counter state-backed harassment and intimidation and the resulting self-censorship are long overdue,” said Human Rights Watch researcher Sophie McNeill.

Ms Thomson cautioned against “duplicating effort”, citing the committee’s recommendation to establish a National Research Integrity Office within the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Teqsa). This risked replicating work already done by the Australian Research Integrity Committee (Aric), which reviews institutional processes to ensure that research is conducted responsibly. 

Ms Thomson said there was “potentially an argument” for extending Aric’s mandate to cover national security issues, but “shifting it into Teqsa changes everything because Teqsa’s about regulation. It’s an agency with the task of ensuring quality and compliance with regulations. If you’re replacing a guideline approach with a regulatory approach, we would need to understand what that means in practice.”

The PJCIS also wants universities to “exercise greater caution” when they conduct research in 63 “critical technology” fields listed by the federal government last November. The sector should not consider the list “exhaustive”, the report adds.

Four of the report’s recommendations relate to foreign recruitment schemes such as China’s Thousand Talents Plan, despite testimony from the head of security agency Asio that the programme is “in and of itself not concerning”. One recommendation would deny universities Defence Industry Security Programme accreditation, a precondition for significant defence-related research, if they have “exposure” to talent recruitment schemes.

Critics say such restrictions are unnecessary, given that no university has been found in breach of the Defence Trade Controls Act. A source said the committee had an “if you don’t find anything, just keep looking” approach. “PJCIS won’t leave this alone even if there is a change of government,” he said.

Others say current regulations are inadequate to deal with contemporary threats. The Defence Trade Controls Act, for example, was designed before major concerns emerged about intellectual property theft.



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