Universities must protect sensitive research from foreign governments, minister says | Australia news

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Universities will be required to work with Australian government agencies to protect sensitive research from foreign governments, Dan Tehan has confirmed.

But the federal education minister has denied that the new guidelines on research collaboration will give security agencies an effective veto, as concerns about foreign influence on campuses, particularly from China, grow.

Tehan also defended universities in the wake of a Centre for Independent Studies report claiming they are financially vulnerable because of a dependence on international students, particularly from China.

Tehan told Radio National the university sector has “not become captive to any country”, explaining that talks on Wednesday would establish “best practice guidelines” when it comes to foreign interference and cybersecurity.

“One of the most important things here is that government and the university sector need to work very closely on these issues – and we need to put in place clear markers as to what is expected.”

Tehan said that “all research with whatever country” must be in the Australian national interest, which could require “markers” to be put in to ring-fence certain sensitive research.

Tehan said in some areas such as medical research there is a “mutual interest”, but in other types of research – such as that with military applications – “there might not be such mutual interest” and Australia should not therefore share with other countries.

Tehan said the guidelines would “not necessarily mean you have to seek permission” from government agencies, but “might mean … an understanding of what technologies might have dual uses”.

The University of Technology Sydney has announced it will review its $10m partnership with CETC, a Chinese state-owned military tech company that developed an app that Chinese security forces use to track and detain Muslim Uyghur citizens in Xinjiang.

The CIS report by adjunct professor Salvatore Babones found that some lectures are attended by 87% foreign students and that one quarter of students in surveyed Australian universities are international students, higher than any other nation. Of that total, 10% come from China.

Any move by the Chinese government to impose currency controls or a drop in the enrolments would endanger the institutions, the centre says.

Citing the large amount paid by Chinese students to Sydney University in 2017 – $500m or 23% of its revenue – Baboness, said: “At these levels … even small percentage declines in Chinese student numbers could induce significant financial hardship. Large percentage declines could be catastrophic.”

Tehan said that international students bring a total of $35bn in export income to Australia. He noted the seven universities surveyed had operating surpluses of $930.4m and said he hadn’t seen anything to suggest they were “fiscally irresponsible”.

“They understand about what they need to do to secure the futures of their universities, but they have very good financial positions and are managing their finances incredibly well,” he said.

The attorney general’s department is currently inquiring into whether China-backed Confucius Institutes at Australian universities require registration as agents of foreign influence under the new transparency register.

Earlier in 2019, intelligence officials claimed China may have been behind a massive data breach which compromised the personal details of thousands of Australian National University students and staff.

Australian universities have been the battleground for pro-Hong Kong and pro-China rallies during protests against Hong Kong’s controversial extradition law.

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