Australia:University students will be trained to spot foreign interference

Will be interesting to see how the training works in practice and possible lessons learned for Canada:

University students will be trained to spot foreign interference threats on campus and report them to authorities under proposed new rules aimed at significantly beefing up universities’ responsibilities for countering Chinese government influence on campuses.

Academics and students involved in research collaborations with overseas institutions will also get specific training on how to “recognise, mitigate and handle concerns of foreign interference”, following security agencies’ concerns about critical research being stolen.

The measures are contained in new draft foreign interference guidelines for universities, which are being furiously debated among university leaders and government officials. The federal government has already been forced to review a key element of the guidelines, which would have required all academics to disclose their membership of foreign political parties over the past decade, following a fierce backlash from university chiefs.

Following growing concerns from Australia’s security agencies about the risk of research theft by China and other foreign actors, the guidelines state that students and staff are to “receive training on, and have access to information about how foreign interference can manifest on campus and how to raise concerns in the university or with appropriate authorities”.

The measures are also aimed at addressing reports of students and academics being harassed by pro-Beijing groups on campuses. They propose that orientation programs should be used to “promote to all staff and students ways to report within their university concerns of foreign interference, intimidation and harassment that can lead to self-censorship”. Universities will also be required to have policies that set out how reported “concerns are tracked, resolved and recorded and shared” internally and when they should be reported to outside authorities.

To oversee these measures, the guidelines state that universities must have an “accountable authority” – either a senior executive or executive body – that will have responsibility for research collaborations with overseas institutions, and reviewing security risks and communicating them with the government.

The guidelines have been drafted by the Universities Foreign Interference Taskforce (UFIT), a collaborative body that includes university vice-chancellors and government officials. The final version will replace existing guidelines, which are far less prescriptive. The proposal has prompted considerable concern among academic leaders about the mandatory language underpinning the new requirements, and what consequences, if any, universities will face from government if they fail to implement them.

Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge has declined to comment on “what is and isn’t in the draft guidelines”, but said earlier this year he was deeply concerned by a Human Rights Watch report that revealed accounts of Chinese international students being surveilled and harassed by their pro-Beijing classmates.

The report found that students were self-censoring in class out of fear comments critical of the Chinese Communist Party would be reported to authorities, with several students saying their parents in China had been hauled into police stations over their campus activities. Academics interviewed by Human Rights Watch also reported self-censorship practices, saying sensitive topics such as Taiwan had become too difficult to teach without a backlash from pro-Beijing students.

The report’s author, Sophie McNeill, said the draft guidelines indicated the government had taken the report’s findings into account.

“This focus had been missing from the previous guidelines, so it is very welcome these issues are now being recognised and addressed. It is critical the final guidelines include practical measures to safeguard academic freedom and address issues of harassment, surveillance and self-censorship faced by international students and staff,” Ms McNeill said.

Some universities have already taken steps to respond to the issues highlighted by Human Rights Watch. The University of Technology Sydney, for example, updated its orientation program for international students this semester to include guidance on acceptable behaviour and how students could report intimidation or surveillance by other students.

“We have certainly made it clear to students that what is discussed in classrooms is not something that should be reported on to the embassy,” Mr Watt, UTS deputy vice-chancellor, said.

“We’re not encouraging students to spy on each other. But rather, it’s saying: if you get doxxed or bullied or feel unable to express your views in a lecture here is the support available to you and here’s what you should do.”

The university’s misconduct rules allow for a range of penalties in response to unacceptable behaviour, including potential expulsion in serious cases.

Source: https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/university-students-will-be-trained-to-spot-foreign-interference-20210830-p58n3s.html

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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