The Committee accepted evidence that the Australian higher education and research sector (the sector) is characterised by its research and teaching quality, the education it provides to many including international students, its international engagement and its integrity. The Committee notes all of these factors are commendable and worth protecting and promoting.
The Committee has deliberately focussed on risk and threat to the sector in this inquiry. The Committee accepted evidence that the national security risks are a function of probability and consequence and threat is a function of intent and capability. These threats are likely to evolve over time, as evidence provided to the Committee has shown they have in the previous decade.
The Committee noted evidence that the sector, much the same as many other sectors within Australia, is and will continue to be a target of foreign adversarial action. The intent and capability of foreign adversaries is present, as evidence to this Committee has shown. The Committee accepted evidence that foreign powers are using their full suite of tools against Australia and only some of these are illegal activities and the remainder probably fall into the category of legitimate foreign influence activities.
The Committee noted that the sector must move from a benign operating environment for our adversaries to a hardened environment. The Committee concluded that 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. None of these measures would take away from the fundamental independence that our universities possess.
The Committee’s recommendations can be seen in the framework of hardening the operating environment to deny adversaries the ability to engage in the national security risks in the sector. Hardening requires education, policy, enforcement and engagement. All of these concepts will be discussed through the recommendations, which does not necessarily require additional legislation. The Committee view this as a shared issue for government and the sector, and one that will only be improved by a cooperative and aligned approach from both.
The sector for the purposes of this chapter is the Australian higher education and research sector and all recommendations relating to the sector are intended to describe this grouping. Recommendations where the Committee sees a role for the sector have been deliberately directed towards the University Foreign Interference Taskforce (UFIT) which is comprised of the sector and relevant government departments.
Four headline recommendations
Before turning detailed discussion of the issues set out in previous chapters there are three ‘headline’ recommendations that need to be set out. The first three, relating to UFIT are self-explanatory and the fourth, relating to foreign interference on campuses requires some lead in discussion.
The Committee recommends the Australian higher education and research sector, via the University Foreign Interference Taskforce, undertake a campaign of active transparency in relation to the national security risks. The Committee recommends that the University Foreign Interference Taskforce have oversight of this campaign and report to the Australian Government on progress.
The Committee welcomes the revised UFIT Guidelines and further recommends adherence to those guidelines be reported annually to the PJCIS in writing, accompanied by a classified briefing. This briefing should include an explanation of the capabilities developed to monitor and evaluate compliance with the guidelines.
The Government should further consider the UFIT terms of reference and update relevant guidance material to ensure the body remains fit for purpose.
The Committee recommends University Foreign Interference Taskforce assist universities to introduce, maintain and develop relevant training on national security issues for staff and students. Universities should employ an accountable authority who is responsible for managing foreign interference risks at their institution. This position should be based upon the framework set out in part 1.2 of the updated UFIT Guidelines.
Foreign interference on campuses
The Committee noted evidence that national security and academic freedoms/international engagement are not zero-sum concepts but complementary. The Committee recommends the sector consider national security as a supporting feature to the sector rather than an administrative inconvenience or compliance burden. The Committee accepts the premise that a poorly arranged compliance or legislative framework can increases risks in the sector. The Committee does not however accept that this is what is occurring in the sector.
Foreign interference on university campuses is a particularly complex issue and careful choice of language is required. Universities are, and should be, places of free speech and independent thought. Holding various views regarding geopolitical topics is a reasonable part of university discourse. However, if a foreign power either through their representatives in Australia or through other means seeks to influence, stifle or alter debate then this is a clear demonstration of foreign interference and a risk that universities must seek to mitigate.
The Committee is concerned by evidence indicating that incidents of foreign interference, censorship and intimidation were occurring on university campuses. The Committee is not recommending additional legislation on this topic as it accepted evidence as to the sufficiency of existing legislation. However the Committee does recommend UFIT form a working group to explore these issues in detail and provide recommendations to both the government and the sector.
The Committee recommends the University Foreign Interference Taskforce establish a working group to address the issue of on-campus intimidation, reporting on fellow students or staff to foreign embassies, and intimidation on campuses related to the national security risks and make recommendations to the Australian Government and the sector.
This group, as a matter of urgency, should provide clear guidance to universities on implementing penalties for foreign interference activities on campus, including reporting on fellow students to foreign governments. These should be clearly defined in university codes of conduct and communicated to students.
The importance of the sector
The Committee noted evidence highlighting the importance of the sector, its contributions to Australian society more broadly and the importance of international engagement by universities. International research and collaboration – within reason – is a critical part of the Australian economy and society.
The Committee believes the independence of the sector is critical. Australian universities and research institutions hold entrenched freedoms that allow high quality research and democratic debate of ideas. This is important for both staff and students within the sector. The Australian higher education system plays an important role in Australian public life. The importance of freedom of speech on campuses, international research relationships and collaboration is critical. This independence is at risk though as national security threats can erode it.
The Committee notes that the sector plays a critical role in Australian society both economically and intellectually. The Committee accepted evidence that national security and academic integrity are not zero sum concepts. National security and academic integrity are mutually reinforcing and critical for a prosperous Australian society. The sector indicated its acknowledgement of the importance of national security, and the national security bodies indicated their support for academic independence and freedom.
The Committee notes the legislative landscape that exists for the sector and is not recommending any additional laws to address these issues. The Committee believes that much of the response to these issues can be performed at the sub-legislative level in the first instance. As Professor Brian Schmidt of the ANU observed:
What we must avoid in doing this is imposing an increased regulatory burden that stifles international collaboration and robs us of the national benefits it provides.
International engagement can vary from international students studying in Australia to Australian researchers conducting research with academics in other countries. It is wide, varied, and deeply important to the sector. It is not only beneficial to the sector, but also international engagement is critical to advancing Australian interests. The Committee accepted evidence that in general it is in Australia’s interests to be internationally connected and to collaborate with other countries. It is important however for the engagement to be in Australia’s interests. Whilst articulation of the national interest must come from Government, it is not sufficient for the sector to wait exclusively for guidance from Government. Reasonable and sensible decisions in regard to reputational risk and international engagement are the responsibility of the sector.
The Committee considers that the national interest, key areas of research engagement and critical technologies were not sufficiently articulated or defined to the sector and recommends this is done. Several submissions noted the soft power opportunities and other ways international education can be in the national interest. Most notably the Committee accepted evidence received from the Universities of Melbourne and Tasmania on this topic.
Submissions recommended developing a national talent management strategy for Australian academics and research. Related to this the Committee accepted evidence that the sector provides numerous soft power opportunities that could be better exploited by government for the national interest. A strategy could be used as a counter to the pervasive effects of foreign talent-recruitment programs and technology transfer while promoting international engagement.
The sector’s awareness of the national security risks
The Committee believes that the sector’s awareness, responsiveness and effectiveness in relation to national security risks can best be described as reactionary but developing rapidly. The sector has not, and did not, respond to these risks in a vacuum or of their own proactive volition. Because of this reactionary approach, the Committee took a dim view of arguments of legislative overlay and increasing regulatory burdens when the Committee considers that the sector was being reactionary to the national security risks. It is possible perhaps that should the sector have been more proactive on issues like talent recruitment and foreign interference on campuses that additional government intervention would not have occurred.
Evidence received suggests that the awareness of national security risks within the sector is substantially varied from baseline understanding and bare minimum responses in some instances to deep and mature consideration in others. The sector is a broad grouping of institutions and their awareness and responsiveness to these issues varied substantially. Additionally within universities there can be substantial differences across their federated structure of schools and divisions. The Committee notes the dissonance between universities which have demonstrated strong awareness of the national security risks and illustration of actions taken to mitigate these risks, and universities have provided little detail by way of demonstrating their awareness. There are still those within the sector that say these risks either do not exist or are a low risk.
The Committee received evidence that the sector has been subject to the national security risks for some time. It is likely that increasing government pressure and public awareness is forcing the treatment of these issues. In the past year there has been an exponential increase in the sector’s ability and willingness to develop national security risk mitigations – this has correlated with the rise of UFIT. While this is to be commended, it is long overdue. The Committee would hope and expect the sector to be proactive and leading the development of responses to these issues as many of them can, and should be, addressed by institutions themselves. For example, the issue of diaspora groups being pressured on campus by foreign governments is one that the sector did not require secret Government intelligence to identify and resolve.
The Committee notes the substantial maturity displayed in several submissions regarding their awareness of national security risks. Some universities have clearly articulated the national security risks and demonstrated clear proof of their ability to identify and mitigate risks. These universities are to be commended on their efforts to develop these areas, most of which has occurred in the past five years. This included clear uplift plans on topics such as cyber resilience and new policies and bodies to address existing issues such as talent-recruitment schemes and technology transfer. However some of these universities were equally ones identified by others, including Mr Joske as discussed in Chapter 3, as having severe national security incidents allegedly manifest on their campuses. Many of the submissions noted this uplift was a work in progress. It appears to be that national security risks rose in prominence around 2018 with the discussion of foreign interference. Before this the conversation appeared to primarily relate to dual-use technologies.
The Committee accepted evidence that this uplift process of increasing resilience and responsiveness to threats can be considered as an ongoing process between government and the sector and not one that will be resolved by any one action or even this inquiry. The risks will continue to evolve and we must remain responsive.
The Committee agrees with the arguments proposed by Universities United Kingdom who have argued for stronger systems and greater awareness of the national security risks at all levels within the sector. The Committee recommends a focus on these two aspects by the sector.
The Committee notes the ANU National Security College (NSC) occasional paper titled ‘The Domestic Security Grey Zone: Navigating the Space between Foreign Influence and Foreign Interference’ by Katherine Manstead. Ms Manstead notes the requirement for active transparency in guiding policy responses to these issues as the next step for the FITS Act and the Foreign Relations Act. The notion of active transparency was also mentioned by some in the sector in their submissions to this inquiry and the Committee agrees with it as a general principle worth embedding in any response to these issues. Active transparency means emphasis on these two terms, being both proactive and open in how the sector is responding to these issues.
The Committee is generally satisfied the sector is aware of the national security risks and appropriately developing new risk identification and mitigation measures. The Committee is satisfied with the mature and ongoing measures several institutions have implemented, and their commitment to ongoing improvement and development. The Committee recommends the sector pursue these goals in a coherent, proactive and strategic manner to afford the greatest possible protections against the risks.
The Committee notes the contrast between UNSW’s response to the Elaine Pearson incident and UQ’s response to the Drew Pavlou incident. In the former, the institution demonstrated acute understanding of the situation, empathy and the ability to make changes. In the latter, the institution did not. The Committee respects sub judice conventions and is not commenting on the legal merits of this particular incident, nor does discussion of this issue indicate acceptance by the Committee as to the merits of the issue.
The Committee notes that there is no reporting of harassment, intimidation and censorship that occur as a result of foreign interference activities on Australian university campuses. This, coupled with mechanisms to allow students to anonymously report incidents of intimidation, retaliation, harassment, or censorship on campus would enhance the response to foreign interference in the sector.
The Committee recommends the Department of Education, Skills and Training should, in concert with the University Foreign Interference Taskforce, annually publish a report that documents incidents of harassment, intimidation and censorship that occur as a result of foreign interference activities on Australian university campuses. This report should include the steps and responses, if any, taken by the university.
The Committee recommends the Department of Education, Skills and Training and the Department of Home Affairs work to develop a secure mechanism that allows individual students to anonymously report incidents of intimidation, retaliation, harassment, or censorship on campus where a student believes those behaviours are associated with foreign interference.
The Committee notes evidence received regarding Confucius Institutes, both at a localised level and more broadly. It further notes the recommendation by Mr Chen Yonglin on the closing of Confucius Institutes in Australia.
Rather than recommending the closure of Confucius Institutes the Committee make the following recommendation in order to increase transparency around the hosting of Confucius Institutes.
The Committee recommends that Universities who elect to host a Confucius Institute should disclose and make public details of those agreements and funding arrangements, and that at a minimum, Universities have a final say about the appointment of staff, curriculum content and that robust academic freedom and free speech clauses be included in any agreement.
The Committee supports the Foreign Minister using her existing veto powers under the Foreign Relations Act to make determinations in the national interest, including in relation to Confucius Institutes.
The Committee notes that Monash University intends to help a Chinese state-owned company with links to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) build its new commercial passenger airliner.
Whilst the Committee accepts that the agreement between the university and Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) is focused on commercial technology it is the case that these technologies sometimes do have dual use. The Committee has had examples where apparently innocent research initially has been used for military applications. There was an example about drones. There has been an example about surveillance technology that may appear innocent on its face but could be used otherwise. As a matter of principle an Australian university funded by Australian taxpayers and student fees should not be entering into an agreement with a company owned or controlled by a foreign authoritarian government's army.
The Committee recommends the Foreign Minister exercise her power under the Foreign Relations Act to make a determination in the national interest relating to the agreement between Monash University and COMAC.
The Committee accepted evidence that UFIT was a good mechanism to share best practice guides and government advice throughout the sector and supports the deepening of this process. The Committee recommends UFIT consider all of the issues raised in this report and design responses as appropriate.
Demarcation and illumination of critical, dual-use and sensitive technologies
A vexed issue was the demarcation of research or study areas. The Committee accepted evidence that greater articulations by the government as to what areas of research are sensitive is required. This will assist security intelligence agencies prioritise their workload and ensure the critical areas are protected and a layered defence can be developed by the sector. The Committee is of the view that this approach is required, articulating firstly a strategy to advance our national interests and secondly a layered defence to protect our clearly articulated critical areas of research.
Additionally the Committee notes that a distinction needs to be made between academic areas of national security concern (e.g. advanced defence manufacturing) and national security concerns in all academic areas. However it is not simply the case that if an academic area is not in the former category then it cannot be in the latter.
The issue of ‘dual-use’ technology was discussed as part of this inquiry, with the general trend appearing to be that more and more sectors or areas are being considered as possibly dual-use technologies or subjects. Careful consideration and construction to determine these risks will be essential to both protect Australia and engage positively with the world. The Committee notes the “Blueprint for Critical Technologies” released by the Critical Technologies Policy Coordination Office within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet on 17 November 2021 and recommends this be taken note of by the higher education sector.
The Committee recommends the higher education sector take note of the “Blueprint for Critical Technologies” released by the Critical Technologies Policy Coordination Office within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet on 17 November 2021 as a reference for areas of research sensitive to the national interest and exercise greater caution with international research partnerships, PhD students and cyber-security. However, the Committee urges the sector not to consider this list exhaustive and to also use their own judgement about technologies which might subsequently emerge. In these sensitive research cases, universities should be required to provide additional security assurances regarding research personnel to Commonwealth funding agencies.
National security risks in the sector
The Committee accepted evidence that all the national security risks in the terms of reference, with the possible exclusion of undisclosed foreign influence, were present in the sector. The Committee accepted evidence that data theft and espionage are significant national security issues, with possible manifestation in multiple vectors including the cyber domain and via human means. Data theft in this context includes talent recruitment programs which are addressed elsewhere in this chapter.
The Committee accepted evidence that cyber-attacks by foreign powers are one of the most significant of the national security risks identified by this inquiry. These cyber events are occurring across the sector and are very serious. Several institutions discussed the criticality of this particular issue. The Committee notes cyber is a vector that can incorporate espionage and foreign interference. The sector is a vector through which these risks can materialise. It is also a target in specific instances for research that can be commercialised or used for national gain purposes. The Committee notes it is not only specific military technologies that can be stolen by foreign powers, but technologies in any domain such as agriculture, medicine, energy or manufacturing. Whilst it is true that the theft of some information is more prejudicial to Australian interests than others, all data theft undermines Australian sovereignty and should be protected against.
The Committee accepted evidence that foreign interference is a significant national security concern that is entirely different in its manifestation to espionage, though has some concepts in common. Additionally, there is a substantial difference between foreign interference against students and academics – though both are part of universities. It is a particularly difficult concept which can be muddied in broader discussions around free speech and espionage. Foreign interference requires a state-based component; otherwise it does not meet this threshold. The Committee recommends the Government assist the sector mature its awareness of foreign interference and espionage as evidence given to the Committee sometimes confused these two issues. The Committee noted several academic institutions argued that the foreign interference risk to them was low, and disagreed with these arguments as the overwhelming evidence to this inquiry was these issues are present.
The Committee accepts that the national security risks are not unique to the sector. The Committee notes the importance of perspective in considering these issues, which are likely more significant in this sector than others, but less so than other sectors. The Committee notes the sector is in part a target due to the high value the sector provides.
The national security threats while disparate are prejudicial acts undertaken by, or on behalf of, a foreign power. Foreign interference and influence relate more to attempts to alter or vary Australian systems and institutions rather than the more ‘simple’ extraction of information is espionage. All of these are unacceptable. The Committee accepted evidence that the risks are occurring within the sector, and are significant in their prejudicial impact on Australian interests.
Where espionage relates primarily to taking information out of Australian institutions, foreign interference is all about putting information into Australian institutions or otherwise maligning them. Both are equally harmful, though entirely different in characterisation. Furthermore, foreign interference targeted against academics and curriculum is quite distinct to foreign interference targeted against students.
Espionage is not a new concept, and it has never been the case that a sector or element of a society was immune to it. Universities are at the cutting edge of sensitive research; hold large student populations from a variety of groups; and have strong access into both industry and government. For all of these reasons they can be viewed as targets of foreign powers even if in some instances the sector itself is but a vector to another objective.
For both foreign interference and espionage the Committee accepted evidence that transparency and due diligence are foundational requirements to create an environment in which these risks are identified. Awareness, acknowledgement and genuine proactive measures are the next step required of our academic institutions to further degrade the corrosive effect of these risks.
The Committee notes that these national security risks are likely to evolve over time and while for example talent-recruitment programs are discussed at length below as a security issue, it may well be new national security risks that materialise in the coming years. For this reason, strong engagement with government and a responsive attitude to risk is required. It is perhaps more important for the sector to develop better understanding of national security and develop new tools than developing expertise in one particular point-in-time issue. Given the likely evolution of these risks, the Committee recommends ASIO update the parliament, via their annual report, on these issues to provide the parliament with assurances that the sector is appropriately addressing the evolving risks.
The Committee recommends ASIO, in their annual report to parliament, provide information on threats to the Australian higher education and research sector as a routine part of their broader threat assessment.
Foreign diplomats holding academic positions within the sector
As a general principle the Committee does not have an issue with foreign diplomats holding honorary positions at universities and accepted evidence that existing legislation was likely adequate to address residual risks. However, the situation outlined to this Committee whereby a foreign diplomat made statements that were not compatible with Australia’s position on the right to free speech and to peaceful and lawful protest at the same institution at which they held an honorary position is concerning to the Committee.
The argument put forward by UQ that statements made in a diplomatic capacity can be separated from, and do not affect the role of, such an individual in the university is not accepted by the Committee. To have an individual who praised violence against a student on campus continue to hold office at that university is anathema to the principles of openness and transparency that Australian universities possess. On its face this gives the appearance that UQ is naïve to these issues and on closer consideration an argument could be made that UQ is in breach of its duty of care to its students. The Committee recommends this issue is subject to deeper consideration by UFIT, the Attorney-General’s Department and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to make recommendations to the sector.
The Committee recommends the University Foreign Interference Taskforce establish clear policies on what constitutes acceptable dual appointments of foreign diplomats at Australian tertiary institutions. Universities should also make their own judgements about whether appointments are consistent with the values they seek to uphold.
Additionally, the Committee recommends the Attorney-General’s Department and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade consider whether appointments of foreign diplomats to Australian tertiary institutions are adequately addressed via existing legislative frameworks.
The Committee supports the idea that universities should allow for anonymous assignment submission in certain circumstances as noted in the examples relating to Oxford University. This would provide students who feared foreign interference an avenue to participate in university discourse on sensitive topics.
The Committee recommends the University Foreign Interference Taskforce provide guidance to support universities allowing for anonymous assignment submission.
The Committee recommends the Attorney-General’s Department should clearly communicate Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme requirements to foreign student associations operating at Australian universities and investigate possible cases of non-compliance.
Institutions generally demonstrated strong awareness of cyber security risks and illustrated detailed ‘uplift’ programs at their institutions. The Committee accepted evidence that cyber presented one of the most significant, if not most significant, risk to many institutions and is an area of immense importance. The Committee additionally accepted evidence that indicated strong improvements being made in these areas and several institutions noted their cyber improvement processes were midway through a multi-year upgrade.
Talent recruitment programs, due diligence and technology transfer
The Committee accepted evidence that technology transfer is happening in Australia and is a serious threat to Australia’s national security. It erodes our sovereignty and can allow our sensitive technologies to be stolen by foreign competitors. This can disadvantage Australia politically, economically, commercially and militarily.
The Committee generally agrees participation itself is not sufficient to amount to a national security concern. But this hypothetical and broad statement can, and is, separate from the reality of the situation in Australia. The evidence provided to the Committee clearly show Australian academics working on obviously military or sensitive commercial technology while holding concurrent positions with institutions in a foreign country – this is not in the national interest and the sector must improve its policies and procedures in this regard. More often than not it was inadequate disclosure rather than a lack of disclosure which was an issue.
The Committee accepted evidence that greater improvements on due diligence by universities is required. This is both of academics and institutions. Universities are responsible for their staff who receive ARC funding, and cannot shift the burden of due diligence to security agencies by requesting additional information. Additionally the ARC, whilst not a national security body, is an accountable body responsible for performing due diligence of the grants it issues.
The Committee does not accept that it is an absence of Australian government intelligence that is preventing the sector from undertaking proper due diligence.
The Committee considers that the Australian Government should not do vetting on behalf of universities. This is primarily a business intelligence issue for these institutions and one that many are currently not equipped to deal with. Any solution needs to be commercially available to be shared within the sector and whilst tailored government security advice can assist in this process, it is the responsibility of the sector. The Committee accepted evidence that the engagement and relationship with security agencies was strong and is not recommending any significant changes.
The Committee accepted evidence that for the specific topic of membership in talent recruitment programs, the sector needs to do better. The examples provided to this Committee of possible technology transfer are simply unacceptable. If Mr Joske can identify academics participating in talent recruitment programs in the absence of classified intelligence being provided to him, there should be nothing stopping large institutional universities doing the same. The Committee noted that several institutions downplayed their academic’s affiliations with talent recruitment programs.
The Committee accepted evidence that it is not sufficient for universities to say they are unable to conduct due diligence without greater access to government intelligence. There is a broad gap between baseline open source checking and top secret government intelligence. It is in this space that universities must develop capabilities. The more the sector can demonstrate a mature and proactive approach to addressing these issues, the less likely additional legislation is – the sector would do well to acknowledge this.
The Committee supports greater engagement and assessment sharing from intelligence agencies to the sector, but it needs to be balanced with the sector contributing to this process. Further efforts are required in this regard, and the Committee notes the substantially developed areas in institutions like ANU and the University of Melbourne that holistically assess security risks. There is much to be emulated in these responses from other institutions, and claiming a dearth of secret information is not sufficient.
The Committee recommends the sector develop its due diligence capabilities, and in certain instances parts of the Australian Government too. Security agencies do not have a mortgage on investigatory nous and critical thinking.
The Committee recommends the Australian Government provide deeper and timelier security advice to assist the sector in their risk identification and management processes.
At minimum, the Committee recommends all institutions within the sector undertake a strong audit of their historical exposure to talent program participation noting the thousand talents program is one amongst many. More broadly the Committee recommends the inclusion of penalties with respect to Commonwealth funding for institutions who are failing to detect or respond to these issues.
Legislation provides the outer limit for what is acceptable and in this context it is the EFI Act which provides clear definitions of espionage and foreign interference. In the sub-legislative area before these legal bounds come into effect in which the sector must lead and take responsibility for policies and practices to defend itself in line with its values. The sector previously has skirted very closely to this outer limit and whilst there have been substantial improvements in previous years; it is not sufficient nor appropriate to add additional legislation to make smaller the outer limit. Responsible universities acting in the national interest and in accordance with their own values should, and indeed are overall, able to operate successfully in this realm in the absence of additional legislation.
All institutions named in Mr Joske’s submission as having partially-disclosed participants in talent recruitment programs should undertake rapid and deep audits of these engagements. Transparency and proactive responses are lacking in these examples. The Committee is not satisfied with the responses given to Mr Joske’s allegations which varied from denial to deflection.
The Committee accepted evidence that for institutions that are naive or unwilling to address the risks posed from this activity, the Australian Government should not provide them funding to undertake sensitive military research. Among the universities listed by Mr Joske were UTS, UNSW and ANU. The Committee is disappointed by the response of ANU to Mr Joske’s allegations, which essentially indicated the issue they had with Professor Yu Changbin was that he was spreading his time too thin between two institutions, rather than the substance of Professor Yu’s relationship with the People’s Liberation Army.
Of concern to this Committee were the talent recruitment program examples given that had linkages to Australian or allied (often American) military research. In these examples an Australian academic worked on allied military projects and then became affiliated with talent recruitment programs. These are incredibly sensitive areas of research and universities must do more to protect these areas. In these instances the Committee is recommending Defence withhold funding for high-risk entities or institutions.
It is highly likely, that if the examples provided by Mr Joske are true, that Australian military technology either has been, or has the potential to be, provided to foreign powers. This point requires careful consideration by both government and the sector and is an area that requires urgent attention.
Government, through Defence, should cease engagements with institutions whereby these practices are allowed to continue. Defence Industry Security Program (DISP) accreditation should take into account talent-program participation and an assessment of a university’s ability to identify and mitigate these risks. If one area of a university is seeking DISP accreditation and another area of a university is failing to detect talent program participation then this should affect the accreditation.
The Committee accepted evidence that sensitive or protected research should not be undertaken at institutions which are unable to conduct appropriate due diligence. The issue appears to be partial disclosure, and substantially more information being available on Chinese language media than in English. Stronger penalties are likely required to address this particular problem, rather than additional legislation.
The Committee recommends the Department of Defence deny Defence Industry Security Program accreditation to institutions with exposure to talent recruitment programs that is assessed to be a security issue.
The Committee heard evidence relating to both autonomous sanctions and defence export controls. These submissions noted the well-established nature of these programs and several reviews that had been undertaken. A common comment from the sector was that advice from the appropriate agencies was often slow and an area of possible improvement.
The Committee recommends more timely and relevant advice be provided by the Department of Defence and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in support of the defence export control and autonomous sanctions schemes.
The Committee noted that many of the national security risks are materialising in an overt or readily discoverable manner. This does not make them any less significant, but it does question the efficacy of individual institutions and their ability to identify and mitigate national security risks.
The Committee accepted evidence that partially disclosed membership in talent-recruitment programs of non-allied countries are not in the national interest. Examples of researchers simultaneously developing sensitive (often military use) technology for Australia and non-allied other countries, while receiving grant money from Australia, are unlikely to be in the national interest and most likely adverse to Australian interests. It is not in Australia’s interests for academics here to be assisting the development of our adversaries’ militaries. To fund this arrangement via taxpayer funds through the ARC is anathema to the national interest.
Of note, the Committee heard no evidence that indicated a favourable outcome to the national interest as a result of participation in talent recruitment programs. Much greater transparency, due diligence, and risk assessments are required if participation in talent-recruitment programs are to continue. The current situation is adverse to Australia’s national interests and several examples were provided to the Committee showing how these arrangements are obviously against Australian interests.
The Committee notes a significant number of those institutions identified as having a high exposure to talent recruitment programs did not address these programs in their submissions, despite the significant media reporting on the national security concerns associated with this. The Committee commends the University of Melbourne for its mature response in this regard.
The Committee accepted evidence that talent recruitment programs should not be banned across Australia. However the Committee accepted evidence that government employees and affiliates, including those at the CSIRO, should be prohibited from participating in talent recruitment programs.
The Committee recommends employees of government departments and agencies be prohibited from participation in talent-recruitment programs.
The Committee accepted evidence that future policies and legislations should be ideally co-designed via the UFIT process. As a test of this capacity, the Committee recommends UFIT first address the issue of talent-recruitment programs. In parallel to this process the Government should consider whether existing legislation is adequately addressing this particular issue.
The Committee recommends the Attorney-General’s Department and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade assess whether existing legislative tools are sufficient for addressing membership in talent programs that are against the national interest.
The Committee accepted evidence that an audit of ARC grants is required to determine the scale of this particular issue. An audit should consider previous grants and recommend any future policy changes for the ARC and the sector. It should be completed the Department of Education, Skills and Employment.
The Committee recommends the Department of Education, Skills and Employment commission a risk-based audit which samples Australian Research Council grants over the past decade to determine exposure associated with participation in talent recruitment programs noting the thousand talents program is one amongst many. The audit should investigate whether grant rules have been adhered to regarding intellectual property.
The Committee also recommends the Government investigate the adequacy of existing penalties for research institutions who are failing to detect or respond to any breaches to ARC grant rules identified in the audit.
The Committee accepted evidence that staff member professional external affiliations should both be audited and made public, particularly as this related to talent recruitment programs.
The Committee recommends the University Foreign Interference Taskforce work with universities to develop best practice audit requirements regarding senior research staff members’ foreign interests, including participation in talent programs. These foreign interests should then be provided to UFIT and university-specific but individually anonymised information on foreign interests made publicly available via UFIT’s website. This should include transparency on measures taken to address incidences of security concern and conflicts.
In regard to international students, the Committee accepted evidence from the sector and government that diversification of international student populations was advantageous. The Committee received evidence around the importance of international students. The Committee accepted evidence in favour of maintaining social cohesion on campuses. However the Committee is of the view that over-reliance on international students may have exposed universities to a higher degree of risk from foreign interference. The Committee notes the sector is broadly taking measures to address this issue and commends the sector on doing so. It is possible the Australian Government will be able to assist in this process.
The Committee recommends the Departments of Education, Skills and Employment and Foreign Affairs and Trade assist the sector in diversifying international student populations.
Government policies and legislation
The Committee considered the adequacy and efficacy of existing Government programs, policies and procedures with respect to the national security risks and accepted evidence as to their general suitability to mitigate the risks.
A National Research Integrity Office
The Committee heard evidence in support of establishing a national research integrity office to publicly oversee universities in the sector and produce public reports, manage disclosure databases and conduct integrity investigations. To the extent that doing so would support, and not detract from UFIT, the Committee recommends the Government consider establishing such a body. Any body would seek to consolidate and simplify the existing regulatory framework.
Where the UFIT would continue to focus on agilely and collaboratively developing responses to the national security risks, an oversight body would audit said efforts and provide transparency and accountability. Of note, the establishment of such a body would not represent additional regulatory burdens for the sector and would be designed to audit existing arrangements.
The Committee recommends the Government direct the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency to initiate a regular audit of national security issues and responses in the sector by establishing a National Research Integrity Office within the Agency. The findings of this audit should be publicly reported.
University Foreign Interference Taskforce
The Committee notes the importance of a balanced and proportionate response to these national security risks. The response needs to be primarily led by the universities with government support. The Committee notes national security risks involve the sector and government. The Committee notes the sector is primarily responsible for identify and mitigating these risks, but is reliant on close relationships and information provided from government so as to accurately identify and treat risks. The Committee accepted evidence that co-design between the sector and government was advantageous.
The Committee accepted evidence that the best response to these issues is by empowering and strengthening the sector to allow it to respond appropriately in each university’s individual context. This is in contrast to a strictly legislative or government response to the issues. As discussed elsewhere in this chapter, the Committee is satisfied with the existing legislative framework on these issues and does not favour a legislative response. The focus by Government should be on empowering the sector, as the UFIT mechanism demonstrates.
The Committee notes adherence with the UFIT Guidelines is a good starting point for the sector. The Committee recommends the sector develop stronger understanding of foreign interference as opposed to espionage and not conflate the two terms. UFIT, by definition, relates to foreign interference specifically and not the other national security risks considered by this inquiry as significant. However, the promulgation of the UFIT Guidelines appears to have correlated with a general increase in sectoral awareness of these issues. The Committee notes the UFIT guidelines are not binding nor subject to independent oversight. The Committee accepted evidence that benchmarking and assessment of UFIT Guideline adherence is the logical next step.
The Committee is not satisfied with the answer given by the Department of Home Affairs regarding UFIT’s accountability and future development. Additional accountability is required beyond the oft-quoted positive refrains about UFIT without providing concrete examples of benchmarking or adherence. The phrase of an ‘evolving journey’ is sufficient only to a certain point. The Committee did not receive strong evidence as to the future direction of UFIT.
The Committee notes the strong praise the sector has given to UFIT, both in terms of its collaborative process, and its specific advice. The Committee recommends channelling this positive process and using it as the preferred vehicle into the future, where possible. It makes sense to continue the UFIT mechanism, and the Committee notes that unless specified otherwise, all recommendations from this report should at least consider UFIT in their implementation. UFIT is clearly a positive construct, but it was only formed recently, and has many years of national security risks manifestation to catch up on.
At this stage no legislation is recommended though this should depend on the sector’s bona fide adherence to the University Foreign Interference Taskforce Guidelines. The Committee recommends where possible, Government engage the sector on new legislation and policy relating to the sector via the University Foreign Interference Taskforce mechanism to ensure a collaborative and effective response.
The Committee accepted evidence that University Foreign Interference Taskforce Guideline adherence should be benchmarked across the sector. The Committee additionally accepted evidence that UFIT should now develop a clear forward work program. Review of the UFIT Guidelines could be in the form of a national research integrity office as recommended above. This should involve establishment of metrics and benchmarks for performance. The results of these audits and assessments should be made public annually. This is in addition to a UFIT self review as recommended above.
The Committee heard and accepted evidence in favour of increasing the membership of UFIT. The Committee accepted evidence that DFAT should be included in UFIT.
The Committee recommends representation from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade be included in the University Foreign Interference Taskforce.
The Committee noted evidence supporting increased education for staff and students within universities on the national security risks.
The Committee recommends University Foreign Interference Taskforce assist universities to introduce, maintain and develop relevant training on national security issues for staff and students.
The Committee accepted evidence that legislation relating to the sector should, in so far as it is possible to do so, be co-designed with the sector. The Committee additionally accepted evidence that the sector was subject to a substantial amount of legislation and supports recommendations made to complete a regulatory impact assessment on the effect of this legislation.
The Committee accepted evidence that a national security legislation implementation taskforce would be beneficial for the sector as it seeks to implement the various pieces of national security legislation and regulations.
The Committee recommends the University Foreign Interference Taskforce develop a national security legislation implementation working group to assist universities in actioning national security legislation and related policies. This working group should develop understanding within the sector as to the relationship between various pieces of national security legislation.
Australian Research Council
The Committee accepted evidence that substantial improvements are required on the topic of ARC grant provision, audit and disclosure. This is an area that has ‘slipped’ between the gaps with the ARC saying it is the responsibility of the universities, and universities saying it is too difficult to do disclosure on their academics who are partially disclosing their affiliations. This is not satisfactory and a clear national security risk that requires immediate remediation. Initially the Committee recommends greater engagement in support of ARC processes between the sector and the ARC.
The Committee accepted evidence that grant fraud was likely occurring. The Committee recommends penalties should be introduced to deter this fraud occurring in the future. The Committee notes universities are responsible for their grants, even though it was often particular academics who were not fully disclosing their affiliations. The Committee accepts evidence that it is the universities who are nether the less responsible.
These penalties should deter partial disclosure and incentivise the sector to more adequately undertake due diligence on their employees participating in Australian Research Council programs. These penalties could come in the form of diminished Australian Research Council funding in the future across that institution.
The Committee recommends the Australian Research Council clearly communicate to the sector via the University Foreign Interference Taskforce the serious consequences of grant fraud to increase awareness of disclosure requirements. All Commonwealth funding organisations should consider the adequacy of existing compliance and accountability policies with regard to the provision of grant funding.
In addition the Committee recommends the Australian Research Council toughen penalties against grant fraud and inadequate or incomplete disclosure and prioritise investigation and enforcement of them.
Tenders issued by all government agencies providing grants to research institutions should include a standard clause requiring compliance with existing countering foreign interference policies.
The Committee heard evidence of recent grants being denied on national security grounds after additional advice was sought. The Committee accepted evidence that this was in the national interest but recommends information related to grant denials on national security grounds be provided to the Parliament through the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS).
The Committee recommends a review of the ARC’s performance in assessing foreign interference and national security risks in the context of grant decisions. A copy of the review should be made available to the PJCIS.
The Committee accepted evidence in favour of a stronger enforcement approach to be taken by the ARC on these issues, noting while it is not a national security specialist, it does need to properly audit these issues.
The Committee heard mixed evidence regarding the role of TEQSA and as such is not issuing any recommendations, apart from the establishment of the National Research Integrity Office, regarding this particular body. The Committee has not heard any evidence that would indicate that TEQSA has a substantial role to play in national security issues.
Espionage and foreign interference legislation
The Committee notes the concerns raised relating to overlapping legislation relating to national security. The Committee was generally not convinced by these arguments. As seen in earlier chapters the sector cited the legislation as proof of their awareness of national security risks. The Committee takes a dim view of these same submissions then citing the legislation as a burden as well.
The existing legislative and policy frameworks are sufficient to address the national security threats. Small improvements have been recommended, mostly around the deepening and broadening of information provision to the sector to enable them to best defend themselves.
The Committee notes the adequacy of existing espionage and foreign legislation and its ability to mitigate the national security threats identified in this inquiry. In broad terms, there is no requirement for additional legislation to address the national security risks outlined in this inquiry.
The Committee notes the relatively world-leading responses, policies and structures in place in Australia. Working collaboratively with like-minded countries on these issues should continue to be a focus of all parties involved. The Committee accepted evidence that the national security risks were common across similar countries, and while some contextual factors may lead to different manifestations, the national security risks are global.
The Committee notes the clear articulation by the United Kingdom on the topic of these issues. The illustration of goals and required actions to achieve these goals is admirable and worth emulating in the Australian context. It is likely the actions and goals are similar, if not identical, in Australia. The committee highlights this point to readers. It is probable that stronger international engagement would assist on these issues.
A safe and secure higher education sector is critical to Australian prosperity. Governments and the sector have come a long way in remedying these issues in the past several years but it is an ongoing and dynamic process that will be required to continue into the future.
23 March 2022