SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian universities will be required to work with security agencies to ensure they guard against undue foreign interference, Minister for Education Dan Tehan said on Wednesday.
Foreign students are worth about A$35 billion (£19.25 billion or $23.64 billion) a year to the Australian economy, with Chinese students accounting for about a third of that figure.
But after a spate of cyber-attacks and fears that China could influence research and students, Tehan said a task-force of university representatives and security agencies would be set up.
“Universities are an attractive target given their research across a range of fields and the intellectual property this research generates,” Tehan said in a speech in Canberra.
The task-force would ensure universities had sufficient cyber defences, he said.
In June, the Australian National University said hackers had in 2018 breached its cyber defences to obtain sensitive data, including students’ bank account numbers and passport details, going back 19 years.
Australia has not identified the culprits behind that attack.
The task-force would also ensure academic research and students are free from any undue influence, Tehan said.
This month, Australia’s most populous state said it was scrapping a Chinese-funded education programme that teaches Mandarin in several university amid fears of foreign influence.
Relations between Australia and China have been strained in recent years over Australian fears of Chinese activity, both in Australia and the Pacific region.
In 2017, then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull accused China of meddling in domestic affairs. China denied it.
Tension between the two countries was exacerbated again this week with confirmation of the arrest in China of a Chinese-born Australian writer on suspicion of espionage.
(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Robert Birsel)