Concern is growing in Australia about the vulnerability of its politics, business and society to foreign influence and cybercrime, resulting in recent legislative action.
Higher education is a vulnerable target; in July, for instance, Alastair MacGibbon, head of the government’s Australian Cyber Security Centre, warned that the computer system of the Australian National University had been “utterly compromised” by hackers. It was unclear who they were or what they wanted, but, in such cases, China (and to a lesser extent Russia) tends to attract the most suspicion.
This all relates to more general Australian concerns about the extent of China’s geopolitical ambitions, and its projection of both hard power (its military and island-building activities in the South China Sea) and soft power (initiatives such as the Belt and Road strategy) in the region and more widely. This is particularly the case given the erratic foreign policy directions of the US, Australia’s traditional superpower ally, under Donald Trump.
Knowledge economy activities are central to positioning and soft power. Stephen FitzGerald, Australia’s ambassador to China between 1973 and 1976, once argued that Confucius Institutes, subsidised by the Chinese government, should not be located in Australian universities. But there are currently about 36 Australian studies centres in China, including within universities – although many, admittedly, are very small. So closing institutes in an attempt to limit Chinese influence would be hypocritical.
Press coverage has targeted instances in which former senior bureaucrats and politicians have taken on lucrative work for Chinese entities. The nub of the concerns is that such figures have, in some cases, facilitated improved access for their paymasters to Australian government decision-makers and political influencers, as well as to valuable new research.
Australian universities have existing responsibilities under the 2012 Defence Trade Controls Act not to publish or disseminate information about sensitive military technology and to report any suspected violations of this rule. Australia’s new Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act, which was passed at the end of June with the support of both major parties, now requires individuals to register if they are undertaking sensitive activities on behalf of foreign governments, political parties and other key entities.
Australian universities were quick to recognise that this latter legislation could have a negative impact on them. In its January submission to the government in response to the first public draft of the bill, Universities Australia focused on risks in two areas: research collaboration with foreign researchers and the welfare of students, particularly in terms of international students’ access to academic staff and their ability to take part in sensitive areas of research.
Subsequent revisions to the initial bill have eased the education sector’s main concerns, but worries linger about how these matters will play out. Will the legislation discourage academic connections with China and Russia? Will there be retaliation for such nations’ alleged interference in Australian affairs through, for instance, tightening up on access to visas for their academics? Will it result in a reduction in philanthropic support from overseas for universities in Australia?
Perhaps most worrying to universities is how the legislation might impact on international student recruitment from China. Australia currently hosts about 600,000 foreign students, who generated revenue of about A$32 billion (£18 billion) in 2017-18. More than 300,000 Chinese students comprise the largest cohort. Some are willingly and openly pro-China. Others, it seems, are prepared to wave the flag when pressed by people of influence. What if China retaliates against the legislation and decides to reduce the numbers of students coming to Australia? The latest figures suggest that growth in the Chinese market has already begun to tail off.
And how will academics react? The new legislation expands bureaucratic responsibilities: never an easy task on campuses. Academics and students are not pliant groups, especially when it comes to being told who they can communicate or engage with. Might scholars just ignore the new rules – and thereby, potentially, get their universities into trouble with the government?
After many years of successful international education strategies, this could well be the time for Australian universities to engage in some deep rethinking of their priorities.
Dean Forbes is an emeritus professor at Flinders University.