The Updated Guidelines to Counter Foreign Interference in the Australian University Sector was released on Wednesday and aims to help universities better identify and respond to the risk of “foreign interference”.
However, Dr Clarke – from the Centre for Defence Research, at the Australian Defence College – thinks putting the onus on university bureaucracies to police interference from sophisticated foreign security apparatuses is a heavy burden.
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“It is asking a lot not only of the leadership of universities, but also academic staff, and administrative staff as well and also students.
“So again, it’s adding another layer of further bureaucratisation on universities. And as we know there’s enough of that going on already.”
Produced by the University Foreign Interference Taskforce, the new guidelines address how foreign interference threats have evolved since the original 2019 report.
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While the majority of the guidelines are concerned with protecting Australian universities from research-espionage by hostile foreign actors, the updated version addresses a range of concerns raised by a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released in June 2021.
They Don’t Understand the Fear We Have documents China’s interference and intimidation campaigns in Australia’s universities.
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Based on interviews with 48 Chinese speaking students, the report outlines how China seeks to shape “perceptions of the country on foreign university campuses, influence academic discussions, monitor students from China, censor scholarly inquiry, or otherwise interfere with academic freedom”.
The report was also critical of Australia’s universities arguing they had not done enough to deal with the problems posed by Chinese intimidation and interference.
Following consultation with HRW by university leaders, the updated guidelines require that universities raise the awareness of staff and students as to how foreign interference can occur on campuses and how to report this. 
Importantly, the guidelines specify that university management is “responsible and accountable for the security of people, information and assets to counter foreign interference”.
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While Dr Clarke is concerned the guidelines place a heavy load on university management, Sophie McNeill, the author of the HRW report, believes they strike the right balance in providing additional protection for students while avoiding the “securitisation” of Australia’s campuses.
“Look, I think we need to be really careful about the over securitisation of all universities, and I think that what you see when you read our report is that these incidents actually don’t meet a criminal threshold,” she told SkyNews.com.au.
“So that’s why the agencies don’t get involved. We don’t think they should because most of the time they don’t involve formal state actors.
“You know, this is just Xi Jinping China – young people are encouraged to act in this nationalist matter and report others.
“So, we think it’s about cultural change and that’s why we think the universities need to lead here, not the security agencies.”
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While the updated guidelines are clearly referring to Chinese interference specifically – referring to events that involved Chinese actors – they do not mention China by name.
This policy of “country agnosticism” in which Australia’s laws treat all foreign influence efforts in the same way – meaning in this instance that foreign interference is not linked explicitly to a source country – concerns Dr Clarke.
“When you look at the actual wording and phrasing, certainly of key parts of it, it’s very clearly really only about China, ” he said.
“I would think it’s difficult to think of another foreign actor that would have the interests or the ability to do the types of things that are really being addressed in those guidelines.”
Dr Clarke thinks this “fudging” in not referring to China makes the guidelines both ambiguous but also obscures their objectives.
While Ms McNeill thinks it’s vital to “call out” China about its behaviour, she understands the reluctance of universities to move beyond the “country agnostic” policy.
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“You know they used to sweep these issues under the carpet. You know they didn’t want to know about them,” she said. 
“It placed them in a really awkward position, and they didn’t want to have to call out the Communist Party because they relied on those full fee-paying international students.
“We recognise that the university sector is fearful of standing up to China and having the tap of international students turned off.
“So, we understand that some of these recommendations and policies they have to put in place, for them, it might be better to be country agnostic.”
However, Ms McNeill is positive about the response from Australia’s universities – reflected in the updated guidelines.
“The things we’re most pleased about this report compared to the last guidelines is that there is a recognition now around student welfare and safety, and that of staff, that wasn’t in the last guidelines,” she said. 
“The last guidelines were heavily focused on dual-use technology and research partnerships and cyber and national security and this whole issue of student welfare and staff welfare wasn’t at the centre of those guidelines.
“So we do feel that has now been taken into account and we know that the task force read our report closely.”
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While the new guidelines avoid naming China, Dr Clarke believes the communist superpower’s response to the updates could involve a “couple of different scenarios”. 
“One is that they’ll just simply ignore it,” he said. 
“Another is they will use it to further the narrative they’ve used before in this kind of context – that this is yet another example of rising anti-Chinese sentiment or Sinophobia in Australia. 
“In particular they’ll use it to suggest that this is unfairly targeting Chinese students, particularly those from the PRC.”
For their part, bodies representing Australia’s universities have responded enthusiastically to the revised guidelines.
Vicki Thomson – Chief Executive of The Group of Eight (Go8), made up of Australia’s leading research-intensive universities, says the guidelines safeguard “our place as world research leaders while also being proactive to any potential threats”.
She added the guidelines, “will be an important tool to ensure the development of new knowledge and technological innovations continue to benefit every Australian while enabling our universities to maintain their world-leading position”.
Universities Australia Chair Professor John Dewar said: “The guidelines are an important step forward in effectively countering foreign interference on our campuses, and balancing that work with the essential openness of any strong research system”. 
“Importantly, the guidelines are proportionate and carefully tailored to universities with varying exposure and risk levels,” he said. 
Ms McNeill is hopeful also.
“We think that these revised guidelines, if they are properly implemented because they aren’t compulsory, they are just recommendations, but we think that if universities do actually adopt them, then this will really make a lasting difference on the lives of international students and of academics,” she said.  

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