Australian universities lose bid to escape foreign relations law

Red tape and institutional autonomy arguments fail to sway committee scrutinising law that affects universities’ overseas partnerships

November 5, 2020
Andrew Bogut (C) of the Boomers looks dejected after the Boomers lose the Resi Mortgage Test Series match between the Australian Boomers and the New Zealand Tall Blacks at Vodafone Arena.
Source: Getty

Australian universities have lost their bid to be exempted from a law that would give the foreign affairs minister veto powers over deals they strike with foreign governments.

A Senate committee has rejected arguments that universities should be excluded from the “foreign relations” bill, which targets public agencies’ international partnerships. Instead, a report has urged the government to insert a definition of “institutional autonomy” in the law and to exempt “minor administrative or purely logistical matters” from its purview.

University lobbyists say this is not enough. “Without significant changes, this legislation will signal death by red tape for many international research and student education partnerships,” warned Innovative Research Universities executive director Conor King.

Some 30 universities and their representative organisations, including the UK’s Russell Group, lodged submissions to the committee. They criticised universities’ inclusion in the bill as administrative overkill that would create an enormous unnecessary workload, as overseas links were already monitored through the University Foreign Interference Taskforce and the defence export controls system.

The submissions also raised constitutional objections, while some universities bristled at being defined as “state entities” and complained that other types of organisations – including private colleges and companies with defence interests – had been bypassed. “Vast things are not even covered,” UNSW Sydney constitutional lawyer George Williams told the committee.

Professor Williams also raised issues of procedural fairness. “An agreement may be overturned, but the parties will have no idea why. They won’t know whether they can make a new agreement, if it was just one term in the agreement, if it was many terms – they will be left uncertain as to how to respond.”

But the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said that universities’ “routine business” would be unaffected. “Most arrangements will continue to operate as they always have, just with greater visibility afforded to the foreign minister.”

Charles Sturt University China critic Clive Hamilton said that the law was necessary because of universities’ “state of innocence”. “Interference by the People’s Republic of China is rife in Australia and includes a divide-and-conquer strategy…using universities to build its ‘discourse power’,” Professor Hamilton told the committee.

“If certain agreements are inconsistent with or undermine Australia’s foreign policy, then they should be put on ice.”

Universities Australia said that it was worried about the “workability” of laws covering many thousands of agreements, and the deterrent effect on international partnerships that supplied the “lifeblood of research”.

“At a minimum, the bill should include a list of exclusions to narrow its scope,” said chief executive Catriona Jackson. “Without clarification, the laws could include a huge number of ‘arrangements’ [that] go back decades.”

Mr King said that the scope of the regulation needed to be “considerably tightened to ensure the government focuses its resources on high-risk foreign agreements – not routine activity”.

The bill, which was introduced into parliament in early September, is one of several Canberra developments that involve universities. On 4 November the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, which is chaired by former military intelligence operative Andrew Hastie, announced the terms of reference for an inquiry into national security risks affecting the Australian higher education and research sector.

Universities could also fall under the sway of a new federal anti-corruption commission. The government this week launched consultation on draft legislation to establish a Commonwealth Integrity Commission.

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