More foreign interference scrutiny for researchers

Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

The guidelines used to mitigate foreign interference risks in universities have been tightened to require declaration of interest disclosures from staff “at risk of foreign interference” and allows for this information to be used in funding decisions.

All university staff deemed to be working in sensitive areas will now be asked to disclose links with foreign governments and organisations. The government had been pushing for blanket disclosures by all university staff.

The information collected is now also able to be used by universities in a range of decisions, including grant and funding applications, following increased scrutiny of applicants’ potential foreign interference risks this year.

Staff deemed at risk of foreign interference by their university will need to disclose any links to foreign governments or organisations under new sector-wide guidelines.

Originally established by a joint university-government taskforce in 2019, the guidelines seek to “strike a balance” between risk mitigation and the free exchange of ideas and academic freedom.

The guidelines are intended to build on the individual policies of universities and cover governance and risk frameworks, communications and knowledge sharing, due diligence and risk management and cybersecurity.

The latest guidelines require universities to conduct due diligence on their research activities, partners, staff, and research students they consider at risk of foreign interference.

Individual universities determine which staff are subject to the due diligence in accordance with its own assessment of risk.

The questions staff are required to answer include whether they are receiving financial support from non-Australian countries, whether they hold paid or unpaid positions or honorific titles at foreign universities or organisations, and if they are associated with any foreign government, military or security agency.

The information collected is used to manage the risk and to inform university decisions.

“Due diligence informs a range of university decisions, including applications for national competitive grants and other Australian Government funding,” the guidelines state.

Foreign interference concerns were reportedly used to justify vetoes of research funding this year, when it was revealed grant applicants’ “sensitivities” were also being monitored by the Australian Research Council.

The refreshed guidelines were published  Wednesday and welcomed by the sector’s peak body and the federal government, which partnered on the update.

“These updated guidelines are more important than ever – with international students set to return to many Australian jurisdictions soon, we need to ensure our University campuses embody the free, open, transparent debate that is so vital to an Australian education, and to our way of life,” Home Affairs minister Karen Andrews said.

“The guidelines will protect universities, students and researchers from hostile foreign actors and intelligence services; who have been known to target sensitive research, muzzle debate, and intimidate foreign students.”

The sector’s peak body Universities Australia also welcomed the latest guidelines.

“Importantly, the guidelines are proportionate and carefully tailored to universities with varying exposure and risk levels,” Universities Australia Chair Professor John Dewar said.

“Now the guidelines are finalised, the sector will work on implementing the refreshed advice. We will continue to adapt and update our approach as well as share good practice across all university campuses.”

The tertiary workers’ union was not immediately available for comment.

Education minister Alan Tudge said the guidelines ensure Australian researchers are protected.

“We have seen that Australian universities are a target for foreign interference with foreign actors using sophisticated and deceptive means to steal Australian research and intellectual property,” Mr Tudge said.

“The Morrison Government takes research integrity very seriously and will continue to prevent efforts to steal information and interfere in our universities.”

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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