Australian security guidelines ‘help stop political interference’

Chief executive of Group of Eight says universities have ‘positive dialogue with security agencies’ after contributing to task force

January 30, 2020

The head of Australia’s Group of Eight has claimed that the country’s higher education sector would be “in a world of pain” if it had not contributed to recent guidelines aimed at combating foreign influence on research and teaching.

Vicki Thomson, chief executive of the group, which represents Australia’s research-intensive universities, described drafting the guidelines as “a clash of two tribes coming together”.

“We had command and control with our security agencies and then we had open access, freedom of speech, academic freedom and everything we uphold as dear and important to the very tenet of our universities,” she said.

However, Ms Thomson added that the experience had been very constructive.

“There is now positive dialogue with our security agencies, which did not exist previously,” she said.

The security guidelines were included in a 44-page report, which was published in November and drawn up by working groups overseen by a University Foreign Interference Taskforce comprising higher education leaders and heads of government security and education agencies.

Education minister Dan Tehan had announced the formation of the task force earlier in the year, in response to increasing concern about foreign powers meddling in Australian campuses.

Speaking at an event in London on “the geopolitics of higher education” and how the sector should “position itself in the new world order”, organised by the Higher Education Policy Institute and Advance HE, Ms Thomson said that the report was a “country-agnostic document”, before adding: “This document is not about China, but it’s also everything about China.”

Ahead of the formation of the task force, security agencies would approach universities “telling us...there’s an unprecedented level of foreign espionage”, according to Ms Thomson.

They would say “we can’t tell you what it is, but just understand that there is and you have to do something about that”, which put universities at “two opposite ends of the room in terms of whether we thought it was true or whether we thought it was a political agenda because of the geopolitical context between the US and China and trade”.

Early discussions on the guidelines also highlighted the extent to which security agencies misunderstood how universities operated. The head of Australia’s home affairs agency asked, “surely your vice-chancellors know where your researchers are at any given time?”, Ms Thomson said.

However, she said there was now “an appreciation and an understanding among our security agencies of our value to the economy through our research and education and importantly there’s a clear understanding that we must protect this”.

“If I’m really frank with you, this was blatant political interference from the Group of Eight to stop political interference,” she said.

“We were very concerned that our government would impose guidelines upon us, and they wouldn’t be guidelines, they would be regulation or legislation, if we didn’t actually come to the table…If we didn’t play in the sandpit, I think we would have been in a world of pain.”

However, Ms Thomson stressed that the guidelines “cannot be seen as a conclusion”, adding that Mr Tehan has “said publicly that this document can’t gather dust and he has blunt instruments at his disposal to ensure that we actually adopt and are seen to be adopting these guidelines”.

“Those blunt instruments are funding mechanisms and we know that,” she said.

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