Australia retreats from blanket political disclosure requirement

Refreshed guidelines allow universities to choose which academics face scrutiny of their overseas affiliations

November 16, 2021
Close up view of an elderly man reading mail from an overseas relative
Source: iStock

Australia’s government has watered down plans to force all research-active academics to declare their overseas affiliations, instead allowing universities to choose which of their staff will face “declaration of interest” questions.

Revisions to the 2019 Guidelines to Counter Foreign Interference in the Australian University Sector, unveiled by the government on 17 November, say institutions will decide which researchers to interrogate based on internal risk assessments.

The nominated academics will be obliged to reveal any cash or in-kind financial support from foreign countries, paid or unpaid positions with overseas universities or other organisations – including membership of foreign talent schemes – and associations or affiliations with overseas government, military, police or intelligence organisations.

While universities will determine how frequently their staff are obliged to reveal this information, the guidelines suggest that the requirement could apply annually “with additional disclosures when circumstances change”.

The guidelines are a step back from a proposal in a draft version of the guidelines, which would have imposed a blanket requirement on all research-active academics to disclose their overseas political affiliations and any foreign support received over the previous decade.

The proposal, reported in the Sydney Morning Herald in late August, provoked an outcry that academics would face unnecessary and intrusive questions about benign associations with democratic political organisations in their countries of birth, in a “sledgehammer” move to flush out affiliations with perceived threats such as the Chinese Communist Party.

Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson, a member of the University Foreign Interference Taskforce (Ufit) steering group, which helped amend the guidelines, confirmed in early September that the relevant section was being “recast” following “quite vigorous feedback”.

However, revelations in a Senate estimates hearing in early June suggest that academics were already fielding questions about their political history, with the central research funding agency “keeping files” on grant applicants.

The Australian Research Council said that it had changed its processes to require “more disclosures” from individual academics, including details about their foreign affiliations, when they applied for research grants.

Federal education minister Alan Tudge said a tough approach to foreign interference was warranted. “We have seen that Australian universities are a target for foreign interference, with foreign actors using sophisticated and deceptive means to steal Australian research and intellectual property,” he said.

Mr Tudge said that the updated guidelines were more specific and measurable and would support “greater consistency of actions” to counter foreign interference across the university sector.

Group of Eight chief executive Vicki Thomson, who is also on the Ufit steering group, said that the geopolitical situation for Australia and its universities had “changed significantly” since the original guidelines were released.

“We have had to ensure, in developing Ufit 2.0, that our universities are not subject to overreach yet able to protect that which must be protected,” she said.

Home affairs minister Karen Andrews said espionage and foreign interference posed a challenge to Australia’s democracy. She said that with international students expected to return “soon”, the updated guidelines were “more important than ever”.

“We need to ensure our university campuses embody the free, open, transparent debate that is so vital to an Australian education, and to our way of life,” she said. “The guidelines will protect universities, students and researchers from hostile foreign actors and intelligence services who have been known to target sensitive research, muzzle debate and intimidate foreign students.”

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