A squad of academics and bureaucrats will help boost cyber security on Australian campuses, amid fears that higher education is a soft touch for thieves targeting data, intellectual property and defence technology.
Federal education minister Dan Tehan was due to announce the formation of a “university foreign interference task force” to help the sector fend off cyber attacks, safeguard commercial secrets and ensure that collaboration with “foreign entities” does not undermine Australia’s interests.
In a speech on 28 August, Mr Tehan was also set to task the new group with devising “practical, risk-based legislative proposals” to strengthen the Defence Trade Controls Act, which shields sensitive technology from falling into the wrong hands.
The task force’s membership will be drawn equally from universities and government agencies to fortify the higher education sector’s “unique” perspective with “frank advice from our government”, Mr Tehan was due to say.
The speech, to be delivered at the National Press Club in Canberra, underlines Australian universities’ increasingly complicated relationship with China. While the East Asian giant supplies them with vital research collaborations and billions of dollars in operating funds in the form of tuition fees, it also gives them bad press.
Chinese agencies have been accused of subverting academic freedom on Australian campuses, most recently during protests over Hong Kong’s autonomy. China has been implicated in massive cyber-attacks against the Australian National University, while security analysts say Australian universities are collaborating on research that could bolster China’s military capabilities.
Last year a government-commissioned review rejected defence department demands for greater control over university research, but acknowledged gaps in the Defence Trade Controls Act. In February the government pledged to include university representatives in a new working group to address those gaps.
University of Queensland chancellor Peter Varghese said that shifting geopolitics had brought an end to the “salad days” of Australia’s research relationship with China. Mr Varghese, a former intelligence agency director general, said that universities wanted more clarity around the permissible types of collaborative research.
“If those lines are going to move, let’s make sure that both sides – the government and the universities – understand how they’re moving, and make sensible judgments so they’re not throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” he told the Australian Financial Review Higher Education Summit.
Mr Tehan said his discussions with vice-chancellors this month on security issues had been productive. “This is an important issue that we’ve got to get right,” he told the conference.
“I want to harness the intellectual firepower in the sector to make sure…we get the balance right.”
At his speech in Canberra, Mr Tehan was also due to announce plans to embellish Australia’s key student satisfaction survey – Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (Qilt) – with questions about “whether students feel empowered to voice non-conformist opinions”.
“Universities want to know if students and staff are afraid to discuss certain topics,” Mr Tehan was set to say. “It is only through diversity of thinking, perspective and intellectual style that we get innovation and problem solving.”
Mr Tehan was also due to release the National Regional, Rural and Remote Education Strategy prepared by former Victorian premier Denis Napthine. He will endorse seven broad recommendations outlined in the report and vow to respond to a further 33 specific recommendations “in due course”. The report outlines a “different approach to current policy settings” that will take 10 years to realise, the speech says.
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