Warning over 'creeping' threat hiding in Australian education

Nick Whigham
·Assistant News Editor
·4-min read

Australia's higher education system remains under threat from researchers working discreetly on behalf of foreign governments, despite authorities being more alert to the problem in recent years.

A parliamentary inquiry into national security risks affecting Australia's higher education system held its first day of public hearings on Thursday as the government continues to grapple with the issue.

Foreign nationals working in Australia's universities and research centres are often targeted in talent recruitment programs, most notably run by the Chinese government, in order to "harvest information" in critical areas of defence technology, cryptography, telecommunications and other critical infrastructure, critics warn.

While international collaboration on research between universities is considered vital, the government ties of some researchers are sometimes "not fully disclosed," says Mr Alex Joske, an analyst of the Chinese Communist Party for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Australian universities are under pressure to protect against foreign threats. Source: AAP
Australian universities are under pressure to protect against foreign threats. Source: AAP

Unis urged to probe researchers' ties with China and Russia

The sector has shored up its vetting processes in the past two years after the US began cracking down on researchers affiliated with the Chinese government at its own universities, he said, but Australian institutions are still catching up to the problem.

Speaking to the parliamentary committee on Thursday Mr Joske urged universities to "strengthen their investigative capabilities" when it comes to academic relationships.

Mr Joske said some instances of ‚Äúfraud, theft, interference and espionage‚ÄĚ through universities require a strong law enforcement involvement.

He said the threat was coming “primarily from China" but there are also concerns from countries like Russia and Iran.

‚ÄúWe should be concerned about these activities regardless of which country they‚Äôre coming from,‚ÄĚ he said.

"Recruits are encouraged to transfer technology to China and commercialise it, including technologies with military and security applications," he said in his written submission to the committee earlier this year.

He pointed to a former University of Queensland professor who provided AI-enabled surveillance technology to authorities in Xinjiang where China is accused of running concentration camps, to highlight the human rights implications of such technology transfer.

Interference at universities 'highest since Cold War'

Officials from Home Affairs and ASIO (the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation) also fronted the inquiry on Thursday. Home Affair official Marc Ablong said the government was still working out which critical and emerging technologies will incur more rigorous scrutiny when it comes to collaborations with overseas researchers.

"We will be publicly communicating that" he said. "We're not quite there yet."

Acting as Education Minister, Dan Tehan blocked taxpayer grants to top university scientists due to fears over foreign relationships. Source: AAP
Acting as Education Minister, Dan Tehan blocked taxpayer grants to top university scientists due to fears over foreign relationships. Source: AAP

Last month The Australian reported that top scientists at Australian ­universities were denied lucrative research grants when then education minister Dan Tehan stepped in to block their approval over fears about projects that could hand military or ­economic advantage to foreign adversaries.

Meanwhile the Director-General of Security at ASIO, Mike Burgess, said the scale of foreign interference in universities is higher than at any time since the Cold War. ASIO had 60 engagements with universities in 2020 over the issue, he said.

Student warns of 'authoritarian creep' on campus

Controversial University of Queensland (UQ) student Drew Pavlou was also due to front the inquiry on Thursday.

In his written submission, he warned of an "authoritarian creep" happening on Australian campuses due to a growing reliance on Chinese funding and students.

Former University of Queensland student and activist Drew Pavlou and others protest in support of Hong Kong in Brisbane. Source: AAP
Former University of Queensland student and activist Drew Pavlou and others protest in support of Hong Kong in Brisbane. Source: AAP

"In my experience as a campus human rights activist opposed to Chinese government atrocities, I believe universities like UQ are now so economically dependent on China that they are willing to censor Chinese government critics to safeguard positive ties.

"This authoritarian creep illustrates the insidious danger Chinese state interference poses to our national security and democratic way of life."

The inquiry is due to hand down its findings in July.

Some academics and university officials have expressed concerns an overreaction by Canberra that could impact important research and collaboration across borders.

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