Australian universities adopt foreign interference guidelines

Sydney (AFP) –


Australia announced measures to combat foreign interference at its universities Thursday, setting new guidelines around the key areas of research collaboration, cybersecurity, and international partnerships.

There has been growing concern about China's clout on campuses following a series of hacks, controversial donations and incidents of political intimidation linked to Beijing.

The new guidelines push universities to enhance their cybersecurity systems, undertake due diligence before signing partnerships with overseas organisations, and train staff to recognise foreign influence attempts.

Academics are urged to be wary of sharing knowledge on sensitive topics and discern how joint research with international scholars could potentially be misused.

Education Minister Dan Tehan said the guidelines were designed to "ensure universities understand the risks and know what steps to take to protect themselves".

It comes after Australia established a task force in August to help protect sensitive research, cyber-defences, and free speech.

Schools and government officials -- including spy agencies -- have also committed to more intensive consultation to protect Australia's national interests.

The changes follow a data breach at the Australian National University last year that exposed sensitive staff and student data going back two decades.

The country's universities have also taken tens of millions of dollars from Beijing to establish "Confucius Institute" branches -- similar to Germany's Goethe-Institut and France's Alliance Francaise -- that steer clear of issues damaging to China's ruling Communist Party.

Beijing denies interfering in campus life.

Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on Thursday that allegations of "Chinese infiltration" in Australian institutions were "pure nonsense".

Geng said at a regular press briefing that China hopes Australia will "uphold the principles of fairness, transparency and non-discrimination", and "avoid politicizing normal exchange programmes".

Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology vice-chancellor Martin Bean, who worked on developing the new guidelines, said they would "assist decision makers in continuing to assess the evolving risks from foreign interference".

Deborah Terry, chair of lobby group Universities Australia, said higher education institutions had worked closely with the government throughout the process.

"Our shared aim is to build on existing protections against foreign interference, without damaging the openness and global engagement that are essential to Australia's success," she said.

"The intent is not to add to the regulatory or compliance burden for universities, nor to contravene university autonomy -– but to enhance resources and intelligence to further safeguard our people, research and technology."