‘Ramped up dramatically’: Universities, ASIO working more closely than ever on foreign interference

Collaboration between Australia’s intelligence services and universities has ramped up over the past three years in response to an escalating threat of interference by China and other foreign governments.

The leaders of the country’s research universities pointed to 2018 as a turning point in their engagement with the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and other agencies as they defended their efforts to address foreign interference risks at a federal parliamentary inquiry on Friday.

Australia’s leading research universities say they are working closely with ASIO and other intelligence agencies to counter foreign interference threats. Credit:Simon Schluter

University of Sydney deputy vice-chancellor Duncan Ivison said the university had a relationship with security agencies dating back to 2010, but there had been a distinct shift in focus towards foreign interference in recent years.

“The conversations about foreign interference really began to intensify towards the end of 2018 and into 2019,” Professor Ivison told the inquiry.

“It was really, as the government has acknowledged, that realisation that foreign interference was now, along with counter terrorism, beginning to be a really significant security issue for Australia that conversations became particularly proactive at that stage.”

Australian National University vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt said the university’s relationship with the security sector had “ramped up dramatically” since 2018, when the relationship expanded to include the Australian Signals Directorate and the Office of National Intelligence.

Professor Michael Wesley, a deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Melbourne, said security agencies were now giving universities “a much more sophisticated understanding of the sorts of programs, the sorts of processes, the sorts of trade craft that foreign actors may be using on our campuses”.

“At the same time, I think there’s been a process of education the other way as well. Our security agencies, I think, are much more aware of the way that universities work, their governance structures and how to balance those issues of academic freedom, freedom of inquiry, freedom of research with real concerns around foreign interference.”

The inquiry by Parliament’s intelligence and security committee was triggered by concerns within the government about foreign interference at Australian universities targeting research projects, as well as the role of the Chinese government’s talent recruitment programs.

In December, the federal government rejected five research grants on national security grounds after the Australian Research Council referred 18 grants for further scrutiny.

Australian National University vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt said the university’s relationship with the security sector had “ramped up dramatically” since 2018.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

The committee on Friday heard two of the rejected grants were from the Australian National University and one from the University of Technology Sydney.

Appearing before the inquiry last week, ASIO boss Mike Burgess said the scale of foreign interference in universities was higher than at any time since the Cold War and revealed ASIO had 60 engagements with universities in 2020.

He said the interference efforts were attributable to “more than one country [but] one country in particular is highly active”.

Mr Burgess also told the inquiry ASIO was working with the Department of Home Affairs to give universities an expanded list of emerging technologies that should be protected from foreign interference.

The working relationship between universities and security agencies was formalised in 2019 with the creation of the University Foreign Interference Taskforce (UFIT).

But the Morrison government has since intensified its oversight of the sector through a suite of legislative powers, which universities have warned will duplicate existing measures and could jeopardise future research partnerships.

Universities were included in new foreign veto laws, which give the federal government the power to tear up research contracts with foreign governments, despite arguing the laws threatened academic freedom and posed a significant administrative burden.

“We do have a number of regulatory instruments being imposed on us that are highly duplicative and not well defined right now. That involves critical technologies but also foreign relations reporting on top of the very effective UFIT process,” Professor Schmidt told the hearing.

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