More work needed on university security, Australian agencies say

Defence controls, research fields and New Colombo Plan in the frame, as bureaucracies flag foreign interference risks

January 7, 2021
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Australian government agencies have flagged further constraints on universities’ foreign ties, amid persistent concerns that international research and teaching collaborations may be undermining national interests.

In a submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, which is conducting an inquiry into national security risks affecting research and academia, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (Asio) identified higher education as a vulnerable sector with “further scope to improve arrangements”.

The submission outlines Asio’s view that universities need more information about the types of research requiring “protection” and cites past instances of strong-arming by foreign parties.

“We are aware of researchers and their families who have been threatened, coerced or intimidated by actors seeking to have their sensitive research provided to a foreign state,” the submission says. “Some universities have been threatened through financial coercion should critical research continue.”

The Department of Defence indicated that it was maintaining its push for changes to the Defence Trade Controls Act, which regulates the supply, sale and publication of goods and technology with strategic or military uses.

The department’s submission highlights a 2018 review’s identification of “gaps” in the legislation, particularly around reporting obligations concerning “dual-use” technology – equipment with potential military applications despite being developed for non-military purposes.

The submission says that the department is working on proposed legislative amendments that “strengthen controls over technology transfers while not unnecessarily restricting trade, research and international collaboration”.

This suggests that Defence has not abandoned its lobbying for more technologies to be regulated. A similar push in 2018 was rejected by the reviewer, former security and intelligence chief Vivienne Thom, who found that the department’s proposals would have been too “administratively burdensome” for universities.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) signalled more scrutiny of foreign partners involved in the New Colombo Plan (NCP), a popular mobility scheme that bankrolls study abroad stints in Indo-Pacific countries.

The DFAT submission highlights “potential sensitivities” around foreign companies that arrange courses, internships and mentorships in the host countries. While universities have so far provided enough information for DFAT to weigh these risks, the submission stresses the “need to remain vigilant”.

“Potential foreign interference actors may attempt to target Australian university students through the NCP, seeing it as a means to engage with young Australians who have self-identified as having an interest in the region,” the submission says. “Australian universities, as the principal partners, must remain alert to these possibilities.”

The Australian Research Council said that it had updated its conflict-of-interest policy to take account of foreign interference concerns, requiring extra information about grant applicants’ overseas affiliations and funding.

It said that counterpart organisations elsewhere were taking similar steps. “These risks are evolving in a dynamic manner,” its submission says. “International approaches to managing them [reflect] the delicate balancing act that funding agencies worldwide are facing – a need to strike an equilibrium between the benefits of…international research collaboration and the threat that foreign interference may pose to national security.”

Universities UK said that it had developed guidelines for managing risks from foreign collaborations, based on a blueprint from Australia’s University Foreign Interference Taskforce, and would review them in 2021 and again in 2022.

“The sector will adapt this approach as and when is determined necessary,” its submission says. “The UK higher education sector’s response has been significantly influenced by the approach taken in Australia.”

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