Universities ‘demand autonomy but overlook partners’ subservience’

Be more candid about the nature of your foreign collaborations and think about your own moral responsibilities, Australian parliamentarians warn universities

October 13, 2020
University autonomy
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Australian universities cite their autonomy as grounds for exemption from government oversight but struggle to define institutional autonomy when it is applied to their foreign partners, a parliamentary committee has heard.

University representative bodies have faced a bipartisan grilling from a Senate committee inquiring into a bill that would empower the foreign minister to revoke agreements struck between public agencies – including universities – and other nations.

Universities Australia declined to identify countries where its members’ partners lacked autonomy from their own governments. “That’s a very hard question to answer because we don’t have a clear definition of institutional autonomy,” chief executive Catriona Jackson told the committee.

She also resisted specifying such countries “because they might not be all that happy to be named in that way”, although she conceded that “the situation in China is somewhat different to the situation here”.

The responses drew a scathing response from committee chairman Eric Abetz, a veteran conservative senator from the governing Liberal Party. “Universities Australia continually tell us that legislation such as this impinges on their autonomy. I’m wondering what overseas institutions might offend that definition of autonomy that you would seek to apply to yourself.

“There are some very real concerns within the community and the Australian government as to the behaviour of the university sector…in favour of certain overseas influences, especially Chinese.”

Such concerns are not unique to Australia, Mr Abetz said, citing a new code of conduct developed by the UK’s Academic Freedom and Internationalisation Working Group. “Academics…are very concerned that university bosses don’t consult them about deals with repressive regimes,” he said.

Deputy committee chairwoman Kimberley Kitching urged university groups to articulate the “moral responsibility” underpinning their foreign partnerships, and chastised them for hiding behind definitions. “At the end of the day we all know what’s right and wrong,” said Ms Kitching of the opposition Labor Party.

Committee members highlighted universities’ involvement with China’s Confucius Institutes and Thousand Talents recruitment programme, their treatment of anti-Beijing activists, specific research projects involving China and even a university website advertisement for a job in Hong Kong’s police force.

Ms Kitching said that Australians harboured “a great deal of concern” about these matters, and more such issues would be flagged publicly if universities’ internal processes were “working”.

University representatives said that the proposed law was too broadly framed to address such concerns. Group of Eight chief executive Vicki Thomson said universities’ inclusion in the bill was an “afterthought” and a “fishing expedition”.

“I’m not sure that this particular legislation is going to pick up those issues,” she told the committee.

Australian Technology network chief executive Luke Sheehy said that the bill was “too wide in its scope. That’s the general argument we are presenting – [not] that we don’t need to be part of an ongoing process with government to secure our national strategic and security interests.”

La Trobe University vice-chancellor John Dewar said universities already had to comply with the Defence Trade Controls Act, the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme, the University Foreign Interference Taskforce, the Defence Industry Security Programme and new disclosure requirements imposed by the higher education regulator and research funding councils.

“If all of those measures do not adequately address the problem that this bill is seeking to address, let’s amend the existing mechanisms rather than adding yet another one on top,” he said.


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