We won’t burden universities, Australian senator promises

Security committee chairman does not want to cultivate a culture of ‘learned helplessness’ where universities defer judgement to the government

April 13, 2021
Delivery Man Suffering From Backpain While Lifting Boxes
Source: iStock

The politician spearheading the latest probe into Australian universities’ security vulnerabilities has vowed not to lumber them with more red tape “unless there’s a good case for it”.

And Victorian senator James Paterson has flagged the possibility of extra funding to help universities manage their internal security risks. “We are looking at the resources that the commonwealth provides to universities to assist them in this task,” said Mr Paterson, who chairs the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.

“We want to celebrate the success of those universities who are showing best practice, and we want to bring other universities up to that standard. We don’t want to needlessly recommend legislative change.”

The inquiry, which is due to report in July, was commissioned at Mr Paterson’s request. He outlined his concerns in a podcast produced by the National Security College at the Australian National University.

They included media reporting about Australian academics’ involvement with China’s Thousand Talents Programme, and allegations of Chinese meddling levelled by University of Queensland student Drew Pavlou and UNSW Sydney academic Elaine Pearson.

Mr Paterson also cited universities’ reliance on foreign tuition income and suggestions that they “weren’t being prudent” in hosting Confucius Institutes and striking research cooperation agreements with Chinese universities.

He highlighted media reports about Australian academics’ involvement in surveillance technology deployed against Xinjiang’s Uighur people. “It shouldn’t need to be against the law for an Australian university to be uncomfortable about that,” he said.

Universities have denied the reports, saying the research had nothing to do with surveillance technology or involved an academic no longer in their employ.

Mr Paterson said universities must “make their own judgements” about collaborations that were in their interests and consistent with their values. “I don’t want a situation of learned helplessness in universities where they say, ‘If you don’t tell us we can’t do it, we assume we can,’” he said.

This appears to contradict the rationale underpinning an expanded list of “sensitive technologies” that is being developed behind closed doors. Mike Burgess, director general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, said it would specify research subjects that were not covered by defence export controls but were nevertheless “sensitive to national interests”.

“Everybody would have certainty in terms of areas that are potentially no-go,” Mr Burgess told a Senate estimates hearing in March. “Then you can assume everything else is free to go.”

Mr Paterson acknowledged that security risks at universities had attracted a “massive amount of attention”, but said his committee felt that more was warranted. Its inquiry had delivered a “nuanced picture”, with some universities “far better at dealing with these issues than others”.

“There’s a gap between rhetoric and follow-through at some institutions. [Some] are very strong in one respect, but very weak in others. They might be well advanced in dealing with the cybersecurity angle, but not well equipped to deal with the talent recruitment programme issue,” he said.

Mr Paterson said most universities were committed to national security at the senior leadership level but faced challenges communicating the issue’s importance down the ranks. “[They are] unwieldy institutions, and vice-chancellors in some respects have very limited powers to turn them around,” he said.

“They’re an oil tanker; they don’t turn around on a dime. And they’re going through a process of cultural change to demonstrate the importance of these issues…to all of their employees.”


Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles