Author: Jaymee Hick, University of Western Australia

Foreign interference is advancing beyond Australia’s electoral processes to the realm of academic institutions.

A recent Human Rights Watch report outlines harrowing accounts of repression, self-censorship, and harassment of Chinese and Hong Kong students in Australian universities. Those who project anti-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or pro-democratic sentiments do so under stringent surveillance from authorities, threatening academic freedom of both students and scholars.

The revocation of two Chinese scholars’ visas in 2020 brought this issue to the forefront of national security dialogue. The joint Australian Federal Police (AFP)–Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) investigation implicated Professor Chen Hong and Li Jianjun in the Mr Zhang case, where the CCP allegedly attempted to compromise a New South Wales MP.

Foreign interference is not a novel concern. Defined by ASIO as activities by foreign actors that are “clandestine, deceptive, corrupting or threatening in nature” and are “contrary to Australia’s sovereignty and interests”, DFAT’s(PDF) 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper and Defence’s 2020 Strategic Update echo such security concerns. In February 2020, Mike Burgess, Director-General of ASIO, warned that “the level of threat we face from foreign espionage and interference activities is currently unprecedented”, noting it was higher than during the Cold War.

A recent Lowy Institute poll found that 49% of Australians believe foreign interference in Australian politics is a critical threat to our vital interests. The infiltration of malicious foreign interests into the education and research sector raises new alarm bells for Australia’s security.

Foreign interference in universities goes to the heart of our nation by targeting unassuming students and academics to undermine the sovereignty of our education system. As a cornerstone of our democracy, universities create an environment for the development of diverse views. Foreign interference threatens to diminish the vibrancy of such debate.

Self-censoring reduces the quality of academic research output. This exacerbates existing fears over the implications of Australia’s Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) Act 2020 (Cth). In an attempt to curb Chinese influence, this law gives the Foreign Affairs Minister power to review and veto agreements between foreign powers and universities if they are deemed detrimental to foreign policy objectives. 

But Vicki Thomson, Chief Executive of the Group of 8, is concerned of “shutting the door to international research collaboration”. With China overtaking the U.S. as Australia’s top research partner, this law may deter and reduce the capacity of universities to join partnerships with international institutions. Foreign interference, and the laws created to prevent it, pose an enhanced risk to universities’ research integrity.

University students can expect a reduced quality of education. A culture of self-censoring amongst staff and fellow students fosters an inability to think critically about complex issues. The University of Canberra’s concerns over the vulnerability of clubs and societies highlight how foreign interference can harm a core pillar of the student experience. Through the prism of national security, it is highly troubling that our future leaders may be deprived of an education paramount to their development. 

The threat of politically induced harassment could deter international students from enrolling in Australian universities. As Australia’s fourth highest export, education contributed over $40 billion to the Australian economy in 2019, with Chinese students occupying the highest number of enrolments. With universities suffering from a $1.8 billion revenue loss from COVID-19 border closures in 2020, foreign interference represents another potential hit to economic prosperity. Our academic institutions need to guarantee the safety of international students to avoid not only financial costs, but the loss of diversity international students bring to the classroom.

So, what can Australia do to safeguard the integrity of our higher education and research sector? 

Well, the Australian government has already looked into it. In August 2019, the Minister for Education announced the creation of the University Foreign Interference Taskforce, responsible for developing the Guidelines to Counter Foreign Interference in the Australian University Sector

Developed in collaboration with 13 universities and 10 government agencies, this framework equips universities with the tools to engage globally in a way that protects their people and data. Whilst its voluntary nature aims to prevent regulatory burdening, it begs the question as to how Australian universities can present a unified voice on this matter. The consultative nature of this process is promising, but there will need to be increased integration between the Department of Education, Skills and Employment and the National Intelligence Community in future counter-foreign interference operations.

The current Inquiry into National Security Risks Affecting the Australian Higher Education and Research Sector by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, presents another avenue to combat foreign interference. Upon publication of its findings, immediate action needs to be taken to increase awareness within university communities to empower students and staff to combat foreign interference on an individual level.

Future strategies will need to balance increased security measures with adequate transparency and accountability, as well as considerations for the research capacity of universities. The maintenance of institutional sovereignty is imperative to bolster national security.

Our universities should only experience geopolitics in the domain of lectures, not within their institutional mechanisms.

Jaymee Hick is a Political Science and International Relations student completing her honours thesis at The University of Western Australia.