In spring 2016, the University of New South Wales, a top Australian institution, signed an agreement with China’s Ministry of Science to conduct and commercialize joint research projects. The signing ceremony was held in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and then-Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull looking on.
Just three years later, UNSW and its fellow Australian universities sat down with the Australian government to hammer out a set of guidelines
meant to counter foreign, aka Chinese, influence in higher education.
It can be easy to see the whiplash-fast speed with which China went from valued collaborator to suspicious competitor as distinctly American. But it’s not.
British lawmakers have warned
about Chinese meddling. On Canadian campuses, nationalistic students have tried to shout down
speakers with whom they differ.
It’s the same in Australia, where fights have broken out between mainland Chinese students and those who support the protests in Hong Kong. A massive data breach this spring at Australian National University has been tied to Chinese hackers
If anything, in Australia, the issues are more pressing. A quarter of all students at Australian universities are from overseas, and 10 percent are Chinese. At the University of Sydney, Chinese students account for a fifth of revenues
. Located in a part of the world in which China is the dominant power, Chinese universities and companies are a critical partner for Australian researchers, as the pomp of the Great Hall signing illustrates.
American universities can look to Australia not simply to commiserate about shared problems but for lessons about potential solutions. Here in the U.S., I’ve repeatedly heard from colleges about their frustration that federal officials sound the alarm about higher education’s vulnerabilities, yet offer little in the way of concrete guidance. In Australia, the government also raised concerns. But then officials sat down with university representatives and, in just two short months, worked to producte a concrete set of guidelines.
The guidance, drafted by four working groups, is meant to give Australian institutions practical tools to combat overseas interference in research, protect students, and maintain autonomy. It was informed by a shared set of principles: Security must safeguard academic freedom, values, and research collaboration; international partnerships must be mindful of national interest; and security is a collective responsibility with individual accountability.
While the guidelines are not prescriptive, they offer up some best practices, such as appointing a chief safety and security officer, establishing clear mechanisms for staff and students to report foreign interference, and providing targeted training for people on the front lines of international academic relationships.
I spoke last week with Darren Goodsir, chief communications officer at UNSW, who sat on one of the working groups. He said the process gave higher education “more situational awareness and context” about potential threats.
“The government was driving [the working group],” he told me, “but universities are increasingly aware of the geopolitical dynamic.”
In fact, Goodsir said he’d like to see the task force remain in place, as a forum to discuss how to balance potential risks with universities’ openness.
In the U.S., lawmakers have proposed an interagency working group
to tackle academic espionage. During a Senate hearing
last week, federal officials said they are working to standardize approaches for reporting information on international collaborations that they hope will allow them to spot potential vulnerabilities. Both could help guide universities as they seek to recalibrate their international relationships in the face of security warnings. But Australia could offer a model for healthy cooperation between academe and government.