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Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade into funding for public research into foreign policy issues. Appearance by Ms Vicki Thomson CE of Group of Eight Universities.

Canberra, 7 July 2021

Thank you Chair and committee members for the opportunity to appear today and discuss the Group of Eight’s submission on funding for public research into foreign policy issues.

It is important for me to state upfront that the Group of Eight is strongly aligned with the Government on issues of national security – and by extension foreign policy.

We have endeavoured to cooperate fully and participate in change, particularly during the challenges of the past 18 months – at times expressing concern or caution when it comes to major legislative measures that impact our universities – but our commitment to the safety and security of Australia is absolute.

In this changing geopolitical environment, Australia has had to adapt swiftly to emerging challenges and intelligent foreign policy has become – and will increasingly be – essential to securing our future in this region and indeed globally.

As the peak body for the most research-intensive Australian universities, the Group of Eight accounts for 70% of Australia’s university research effort.

Our universities are fortunate to have the expertise of the best and brightest minds in the land – they are a valuable resource of which all Australians can be proud. We have and will continue to partner with Government to support its national security goals and provide frank and fearless advice in a changing foreign policy environment.

The Committee has our submission and our recommendations – so in the next few minutes I’d like to highlight the value to Australia – to our economy and society – of the foreign policy research conducted in our universities.

Despite the stereotypes, universities arenimble institutions; we operate at the cutting edge of research excellence. We are both responsive and proactive in providing our knowledge and expertise to changing foreign policy and national security concerns.

Two examples come to mind:

The Go8 partnered with Government to respond to foreign interference concerns in our universities through the UFIT process – the Universities Foreign Interference Taskforce – and we are continuing to work with Government in the refresh of the UFIT Guidelines.

The UFIT process – which took just 90 days – involved an expert team from across the Go8 working alongside Government and security agencies, to deliver a world leading template for collaboration which, 18 months, on is still held up as a global exemplar by the Five Eyes Plus Governments.

In fact, the Go8 is providing advice to their governments and universities on how they too can adapt this model for their own specific purposes. As recently as just last Friday night I participated in an OECD Global Science forum on integrity and security in the global research ecosystem – our UFIT process and guidelines are the envy of many countries.      

The second example – I’m sure the Committee is aware of it – is the COVID-19 Roadmap to Recovery: Report for the nation, which Go8 experts provided to Government in April last year, as the pandemic was just hitting its straps.

If you are looking for an example of “nimble” this, was it. Over 100 Go8 researchers and policy advisers worked around-the-clock over a three-week period adapting to the new world of zoom and online meetings – to deliver an in-depth analysis on the epidemiological, economic, wellbeing, and international challenges facing our nation.

These are two excellent examples to demonstrate the flexibility and speed with which our research-intensive universities can pivot in challenging circumstances to support the national interest.

To emphasise our capacity to deliver government with world-class research and foreign policy advice.   I’ll highlight just two of the many foreign policy research centres based in Go8 universities.

The Australia India Institute at the University of Melbourne, dedicated to the study of India and our bilateral relationship plays a crucial role in activating relationships between government, industry and the community and provides strategic advice to Federal and State governments on India engagement.

And, the Development Policy Centre based at ANU’s Crawford School of Public Policy – a university think tank that undertakes independent research and promotes practical initiatives to improve the effectiveness of Australian aid and support the development of Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Island region.

These think tanks produce academically rigorous, peer-reviewed research for the nation’s benefit.

This leads me to the first of two additional points I’d like to briefly address.

It has been mistakenly suggested that the Go8 submission argued that think tanks should not receive public funding.

That is not correct. There are many expert university-based think tanks in addition to the ones I just mentioned – for example, the Perth USAsia Centre, Asialink, and the US Studies Centre – as well as non-university think tanks which provide the opportunity for many viewpoints to be articulated in our democracy.

The point the Go8 submission sought to make was not about jostling for position or funding, but rather to point out the need for a level playing field in the quality, rigour, and, most importantly, transparency of purpose in all contributions to Australia’s foreign policy research.

This isn’t about asking for extra funding for the Go8. What we areasking is that the flow of public money to non-university think tanks be scrutinised and subject to regular value-for-money evaluations.

Unlike research funding to support public universities, this funding is ordinarily not subject to competitive tender, review, or performance appraisal.  

Public funding of foreign policy research is not a second-order issue. Excellence in foreign policy research has possibly never been more important, therefore, funding mechanisms must also meet the highest of standards.

Finally, I’ll briefly mention another area which we will no doubt explore more thoroughly today – foreign influence and human rights.

What I would say is that obviously I would wish for all nations to be as caring and as strong in following the rule of law as Australia is.

And that if we are to focus on delving into the human rights issues of each nation we do business with, that may become an economic challenge for our nation.

The Go8 has long had a policy of not commenting on domestic issues of nations which send us students and researchers, while ensuring that we comply with legislation intended to protect our national interests, such as the Defence Trade Controls Act, Autonomous Sanctions Act, and our obligations as it relates to the Modern Slavery Act.  

We concentrate on seeing each international student or academic as a person in their own right.  They should be able to enjoy our support and our amazingly fortunate way of life and Government rule.

They should not be condemned simply on the basis of race or ethnicity, and neither should we.

More broadly, we’ve recently seen new and concerning revelations in the latest Human Rights Watch report – concerning both because of the events themselves, but also because of the complex and multi-faceted nature of the threat that is described.

Go8 universities take the safety and security of students and staff extremely seriously.  But the report makes it very clear that effective and successful counter action cannot be conducted by universities alone.

Universities – just like any Australian business, organisation, or individual – rely on the specialist knowledge and capabilities of the Government and its national security agencies, who have the primary responsibility and expertise necessary to monitor the actions of foreign governments on Australian soil.

For our part, we do engage regularly, and we will of course continue to prioritise our contribution to this work with Government through the UFIT process.

In closing I stress that Go8 universities have the experience and expertise to make an invaluable contribution to the development of Australian foreign policy. To do so we need excellence and transparency in the public funding of foreign policy research.

Thank you.