Universities happy to cooperate in securing the national interest, THE AUSTRALIAN
By Vicki Thomson
When the government and Australia’s security agencies approached the Group of Eight to assist with development of the Guidelines to Counter Foreign Interference in the University Sector, we entered uncharted waters.
Our universities fiercely protect the very tenet of a university, as they should; its academic freedom and the many layers of international research partnerships they are involved in — partnerships which have produced so many of the world’s great discoveries to the betterment of our lives. And it should never be forgotten, but too often is, that it is research which is Australia’s economic foundation, one which gives us our global standing as a nation, and which becomes more important in a technology and science-driven future.
The Morrison government and the security agencies are dealing, they have said publicly, with “unprecedented” foreign interference activity against Australia’s interests and are seeking ways to help mitigate what is a global issue in an ever more complex and fluid geopolitical climate. Universities, with their global reach and so many long-term research collaborations with so many countries, are being singled out for attention.
The guidelines released last week indicate that when there is a common goal and a common desire to ensure the national interest is a priority, such disparate groupings can work positively together. They learn about and from each other, and as University of Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence is wont to say, they can “question respectfully and disagree well”.
This co-operative working process (which is expected to be ongoing) has protected Australia’s universities from being damaged by the type of heavy-handed overreach security approach we have seen coming out of the United States. It is also enabling the government to take the lead among western countries; with Canada, Europe and the UK all seeking advice from the government, while the Go8 is assisting many of the world’s leading universities through its membership of the Global Research-Intensive University Network.
But the guidelines must not be seen as a conclusion. They are the beginning of an ongoing iterative process where universities can continue to work, through all levels of their organisations, to best protect the national interest while maintaining the global partnerships and collaborations that underpin much of our prosperity.
It would also be remiss to ignore that most universities, such as the Go8, seven of whose members are ranked in the top 100 of the world’s leading research-intensive universities, already have in place strong due diligence frameworks. It is hoped the guidelines can be overlaid on this already established structure, as an invaluable new tool to add weight, if and where required. And we do not hide from facing our own interference problems such as the recent infiltration of the ANU’s cyber security.
We can do better, and for the Go8, that is the intent of the guidelines. It also brings renewed clarity about what the government knows and is considering. That can only be to the betterment of a co-operative working process.