New security guidelines for Australian universities

‘Non-prescriptive’ guidance highlights due diligence, cyber security and staff perks

November 14, 2019
Source: iStock

Australian university groups have reacted with varying degrees of enthusiasm to new guidelines aimed at combating foreign influence on their research and teaching.

The guidelines are included in a 44-page report containing recommendations on universities’ governance and risk frameworks, due diligence, education activities, knowledge sharing and cyber security.

The report, which was released on 14 November, was drawn up by working groups overseen by a University Foreign Interference Taskforce comprised of higher education leaders and heads of government security and education agencies.

Education minister Dan Tehan flagged the task force’s formation in late August, in response to increasing concern about foreign powers meddling in Australian campuses. Worries had been brought to a head by revelations of major cyber attacks against the Australian National University.

Alarm had also been raised by reports detailing research ties with institutions involved in China’s defence establishment and universities’ heavy financial reliance on Chinese students and donors. The conflict in Hong Kong has added to the concerns, with democracy campaigners reportedly coming under surveillance in Australia.

The new guidelines comprise statements outlining how to “deepen resilience against foreign interference”, underpinned by checklists of questions and “best practice considerations” to “provide more specific guidance”.

“These guidelines recognise university autonomy,” the report stresses. “They are not intended to be prescriptive.”

Mr Tehan said that the government wanted to ensure that universities had the “necessary protections” for students, research data and academic integrity.

“Working with universities and national security agencies, we have taken action to ensure universities understand the risks and know what steps to take to protect themselves.”

RMIT University vice-chancellor Martin Bean, a co-chair of the task force, said that universities and the government alike wanted to safeguard the sector’s security “without undermining the invaluable asset of its openness”.

“The guidelines are a fantastic new resource for universities to add to their existing tools and assist decision-makers in continuing to assess the evolving risks from foreign interference,” Mr Bean said.

Universities Australia chair Deborah Terry commended the process of drawing up the guidelines as a “genuinely equal partnership”. She said that the intent was not to add to universities’ regulatory burden or contravene their autonomy “but to enhance resources and intelligence”.

The Group of Eight, which represents Australia’s research-intensive universities, characterised the guidelines as “a valuable first step”.

“International collaborations and partnerships facilitate the knowledge exchange that will increasingly underpin Australia’s prosperity and well-being,” said chief executive Vicki Thomson, a member of the task force. “We see these guidelines and the establishment of our new committee as important steps in securing that prosperity.”

Ms Thomson endorsed the government’s move to include the sector in the process, saying the “heavy-handed overreach approach of the US” would have “stifled academic freedom, ruined invaluable research partnerships and added regulatory burden and additional compliance”.

The relationship with China is arguably the most contentious and polarising issue confronting Australian higher education. Critics say that many collaborative activities involving China are against Australia’s national interests, undermining its security and potentially implicating it in human rights abuses.

Others argue for a measured approach, pointing out that China is on track to overtake the US as Australia’s primary research partner.

Earlier this year, the Australian government sided with an independent reviewer in rejecting Department of Defence demands for greater control over university research.

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