Australian universities
New task force aims to protect Australian universities from foreign interference. Source: Fred Dufour/AFP

The Australian government has formed a task force to look into foreign interference in Australian universities. 

While Wednesdays’ (28 August) announcement by the country’s Minister of Education Dan Tehan did not name a specific country, it follows the country’s growing concerns over China’s influence on its varsities.

This includes cyberspying and “students and staff ‘self-censoring’ on sensitive political issues such as the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong”, said the BBC.

Protecting Australian universities and upholding academic freedom

According to a ministry transcript of the news conference, Tehan said half of the task force would comprise of university staff, the other half government agency officials. 

It would include a cybersecurity working group that will protect university networks against unauthorised access and damage.

An intellectual property working group will also protect Australian universities from unauthorised access and disclosure or disruption to research.

The government aims to finalise the guidelines by November.

“Our government is taking action to provide clarity at the intersection of national security, research, collaboration and a university’s autonomy,” he was quoted saying in Al Jazeera, adding that it was important to strike a balance between the “national interest” and universities’ “freedom to pursue research and collaboration that expands our knowledge and leads to life-improving innovations”.

A sensitive issue

China’s foreign ministry has hit back. Its spokesman Geng Shuang said that talk of “so-called Chinese infiltration of Australia and related statements are completely baseless and made out of ill intention”, reported Al Jazeera.

“Politicising educational cooperation and setting obstacles will do no good to either side and will not gain any popularity,” he added.

In recent weeks, violent clashes between Hong Kong and Chinese mainland students have occurred in Australian universities following the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. Those supporting the pro-democracy protests and students supporting the Chinese government have openly butted heads in universities across Brisbane and Adelaide.

In June, it was revealed that the Australian National University (ANU) experienced a massive breach to its computer systems. According to Science Magazine, the hackers – suspected to be based in China – netted personal details on up to 200,000 students and staff dating back 19 years. 

The report added that there have been allegations of universities unwittingly working with entities connected to China’s military. 

“On Monday, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute published a report claiming that artificial intelligence software being used to surveil the minority Uyghur population in China’s Xinjiang region ‘may have benefited from connections with Australian universities and Australian government funding.’”, it said. 

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