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Australian universities partner with security forces to combat foreign interference

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Australian universities are teaming up with experts from national security agencies and the federal Department of Education to establish a University Foreign Interference Taskforce.

Australian universities are teaming up with experts from national security agencies and the federal Department of Education to establish a University Foreign Interference Taskforce aimed at protecting higher education against foreign interference.

According to Minister for Education Dan Tehan, the taskforce will have four areas of responsibility across cybersecurity, research and intellectual property, foreign collaboration, and culture and communication. It will initially be tasked with creating guidelines to protect against foreign attacks.

Addressing the National Press Club on Wednesday, Tehan said half the taskforce representatives will be drawn from universities and half from government agencies, which will provide “frank advice from our government” to the sector.

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Tehan also expressed concern about recent reports that the information of Chinese students at Australian universities had been collected during protests regarding the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement.

“One of the things that the taskforce will be doing will be looking at security on our university campuses, to make sure that students can go about their business freely, and be able to express their views freely,” he said, as reported by ABC News

Higher education has come under more scrutiny in recent years as research partnerships and collaborations between Australian universities and counterparts in countries such as China have become more prevalent. There has been increasing concern from security agencies that rogue governments are using the connections to steal intellectual property and spread their own propaganda within institutions.

Confucius temple, Beijing. Australia’s government is investigating the Chinese-language programmes at universities that host Confucius Institutes

“What we’ve got to understand is that occasionally what people will be looking to do, or what countries may be looking to do, is look at our intellectual property and then use it for their particular means, rather than for the greater global good or for the good of Australia,” Tehan said.

One method of suspected infiltration is the Beijing-funded Confucius Institutes. The learning facilities teach Chinese language and culture and are a crucial tool in China’s soft power mission, but concerns about academic freedom and the institutes’ close links to the United Front – the secretive arm of the CCP that tries to promote the party’s policies oversea – has led universities to think twice about their association with the organisation.

Australia’s attorney general’s department is currently inquiring into whether the institutes require registration as agents of foreign influence.

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Tehan’s also addressed free speech at universities and said the government will work with universities to gather student feedback on the issue.

“I will work with the sector on what questions to ask to measure diversity of opinion on campus and whether students feel empowered to voice non-conformist opinions,” he said, as quoted by The Guardian.

“I believe universities want to know if students and staff are afraid to discuss certain topics. It is only through diversity of thinking, perspective and intellectual style that we get innovation and problem-solving.”