Universities told to ‘harden’ against foreign interference threat

Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

Australian universities need to do more to combat foreign interference, the Parliament’s bi-partisan national security committee warned Friday, recommending tighter guidelines for universities’ research, campus activities, appointments and funding.

A performance audit of the government’s Australian Research Council (ARC), responsible for around $800 million in university research funding each year, has also been recommended after an inquiry heard it had failed to mitigate risk and properly communicate grant rules.

Universities and the ARC aren’t doing enough to combat illegitimate foreign interference, according to the PJCIS

In an extensive report concluding a 15-month inquiry into national security risks affecting the higher education sector, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) on Friday made 27 recommendations, including several audits of security risk and a new National Research Integrity Office within the Education department.

No new legislation was recommended, but the University Foreign Interference Taskforce established in 2019 with government and university members should lead reform in the sector and make additional recommendations on foreign interference protections.

Government security agencies told the inquiry the espionage and foreign interference “continues to pose a real threat to Australia”, with the PJCIS report accepting this and identifying specific national security risks in cyber, espionage, foreign interference and foreign influence.

However, the committee, which receives classified briefings from security agencies, did not name any state-based actors due to the classified material identifying them is based on.

ASIO was reluctant to even publicly disclose how many countries it currently considers threat actors, telling the inquiry it is “way more than one but it’s fewer than 10, in terms of the countries we currently worry about”.

The PJCIS committee ultimately accepted illegitimate foreign interference is occurring in the sector, which needs to be “hardened” to combat it.

“…the sector, with government assistance, should create an environment where hostile activity is unfeasible, too expensive or too risky to undertake. This deterrent effect will be critical to defending the sector and should be the lens through which government and the sector view this particular issue,” the PJCIS report said.

“None of these measures would take away from the fundamental independence that our universities possess.”

While the PJCIS makes 27 recommendations to “harden” the Australian higher education and research sector, it considers four to be the most important.

These include a campaign of active transparency on national security risks, annual reporting on universities’ capabilities and adherence to foreign interference guidelines, training and an accountable authority responsible for foreign interference at each university, and new working group to deal with the most pressing issues and consider further changes.

Other recommendations include more scrutiny of the Australian Research Council (ARC), which had its recommendations for research funding overruled by the Coalition in 2020 on national security grounds.

The incident and subsequent allegations of the ARC ‘hunting spies’ put the ARC under pressure, and the PJCIS has recommended the agency improve its communication with the sector on grant rules and have its performance on assessing foreign interference and national security risk reviewed.

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