Canberra orders probe into ‘foreign interference’ in universities

As hopes sour for a senate inquiry into proposed domestic funding arrangements, universities’ China links fall under another spotlight

August 31, 2020
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Universities’ links with China – which channels billions of dollars to Australia’s higher education sector, primarily through the tuition fees paid by almost 150,000 students – are coming under unprecedented scrutiny from Canberra.

The government has reportedly launched a broad-­ranging probe into foreign interference in the sector, with an independent member of the House of Representatives claiming credit.

The Australian newspaper reported that home affairs minister Peter Dutton had requested the inquiry from the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. The committee should pay special attention to “technological and knowledge transfer from Australia that may be detrimental to our national interests”, a letter outlining the terms of references reportedly says.

Education minister Dan Tehan had confirmed that Perth MP Andrew Hastie, who chairs the joint committee, was pushing for an inquiry into Australian academics’ involvement in China’s Thousand Talents Plan recruitment scheme. Separately, the government has flagged legislation to give itself veto powers over agreements struck with foreign administrations by Australian governments and their entities, including universities.

News that the inquiry was proceeding surfaced the day that Queensland independent MP Bob Katter was scheduled to move a motion calling for a comprehensive study of efforts by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to exert influence over Australia’s universities.

“I am looking forward to seeing Andrew Hastie and his committee give the Australian university sector the thorough clean-out and interrogation that is long overdue,” Mr Katter said.

He described Drew Pavlou, a suspended University of Queensland student and anti-CCP campaigner, as “the storm-in-a-tea-cup that brought international attention to the true extent of foreign interference and control at Australian universities”.

The Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering has advocated caution, saying small nations such as Australia rely on international collaboration to advance their research and development.

“These endeavours benefit all nations involved, and the collective progression of scientific and technological enterprise,” the academy said in a statement. “To single out individual nations is inappropriate.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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