By Colin Packham
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia laid out new guidelines on Thursday to counter foreign powers exerting influence in its universities, amid mounting concerns over China’s activities.
Universities committed to the new code will share cyber intelligence with national security agencies, name overseas research partners and list financial dealings with other countries.
“The foreign interference threat is at unprecedented levels. It will evolve so we’ve got to make sure our approach evolves with it,” Education Minister Dan Tehan told reporters in Canberra following the publication of the voluntary guidelines.
Australia formed task force of intelligence officials and university executives this year to create new rules, amid a spate of cyberattacks targeting universities and fears that China could influence research and students.
In future, universities will declare foreign financial dealings on the same register that Australian lobbyists working for foreign countries use to declare themselves foreign agents.
The guidelines also increase the requirements on universities partnering with foreign countries on research projects. Higher education facilities will now have to review intellectual property rights and consider whether foreign military organisations might benefit from any findings.
Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton said last month Beijing was targeting the nation’s universities. This stoked tensions with Australia’s largest trading partner, which denies any attempt to influence or interfere in Canberra’s affairs.
Asked about the new policy, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said this was an internal affair for Australia, but that China hopes Australia can apply the principles of openness and non-discrimination when it comes to overseas education cooperation.
“It is creating something from nothing to say that China is infiltrating higher education in Australia,” he added.
China hopes Australia does not “politicise” normal educational exchanges and does more to benefit friendship and mutual trust between the two countries, Geng said.
Foreign students are worth about A$35 billion ($24 billion) a year to the Australian economy. Chinese students account for about a third of that figure and Australia is worried that China could use this position to gain influence over its universities.
Beijing has previously denied any improper activities, accusing Australia of adopting a “Cold War mentality”.
China’s Foreign Ministry has also denied involvement in any hacking attacks and said the internet was full of theories that were hard to trace.
Relations between Australia and China have been strained in recent years over Australian fears of Chinese activity, both in Australia and the Pacific region.
Tension between the two countries was further exacerbated when Reuters reported Australian intelligence determined China was responsible for a cyberattack on its national parliament and three largest political parties before the general election in May. China denies the allegations.
(Reporting by Colin Packham; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Tom Hogue & Simon Cameron-Moore)