December 22, 2020

Parliamentary Inquiry into national security risks affecting higher education

The IRU has responded to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) Inquiry into national security risks affecting the Australian higher education and research sector.

The terms of reference for the inquiry target “foreign interference, undisclosed foreign influence, data theft and espionage”, with the intent to assess how extensive these are for universities; how aware universities are about them; and how useful the Australian Government response and support are to minimise the risks to universities.

Outline of IRU submission

Against the Inquiry’s terms of reference, the IRU submission targets the fourth element concerning the “adequacy and effectiveness of Australian Government policies and programs” as the area where the Joint Committee can best advance an effective response to foreign interference in universities. The Inquiry will gather other evidence about the extent of the issue and universities’ understanding of this.

The IRU submission has five sections covering:

  1. the need for a more holistic approach to government legislation and programs governing foreign influence;
  2. actions to prevent data theft and ensure cybersecurity;
  3. the necessity that research involves people from around the world;
  4. actions to protect freedom of speech and academic freedom from foreign interventions; and
  5. the effective use of foreign supported centres and support for staff.


The IRU emphasises the following key points.

  • There is a real risk of undue foreign influence, foreign interference, data theft and espionage. Australia’s universities need to prepare for and resist those threats as they advance their core commitment to enhancing knowledge through education and research.
  • International engagement, collaboration and partnerships are an essential and intrinsic part of universities’ operations. They are a key to successfully advancing national interests through: the global exchange of ideas, capacity and capability building that underpin research breakthroughs, access to critical infrastructure not otherwise available and the education of future leaders.
  • Universities are subject to an increasing amount of law and red tape relating to the issues under investigation by this Inquiry with no apparent coordinated approach across government. The Government should consider a more holistic approach to these issues based on working effectively with universities through existing channels to fix gaps and new problems in their risk frameworks.
  • The focus of the Committee, and of the Government, should be on tackling serious, coordinated attempts to interfere with Australian politics and public life including undermining confidence in the integrity of public institutions, culture or intellectual property.
  • The major risk is interference with university operating systems. IRU members are actively working to strengthen cybersecurity and other risk management systems and processes at their institutions to assure the security and integrity of our people, information and assets. They are doing this in partnership across the sector and with the Government across many agencies.
  • Political and public debate around these issues too often centres around occasional, low-level incidents about course material, classroom interactions, and activism on university campuses that have little to no implications for national security. Universities are places where views should be exchanged freely and frankly among students and with teaching staff, some of which will challenge deeply held assumptions of students, whether Australian or international. This free and frank debate should be considered a positive thing and wholly in keeping with Australia’s standing as a free and democratic nation.
  • IRU members have responded to the co-created University Foreign Interference Guidelines to ensure that we have fit-for-purpose governance, processes and capabilities to appropriately and proportionately assess and manage the inherent risks in our diverse international collaborations. The Government could further assist these efforts by offering additional practical guidance and resources (where required) to support universities. Such action would be a far more effective approach than proliferating disconnected legislation and disproportionate compliance reporting.


The Joint Committee should:

  1. address the array of government legislation and programs to control the risk of foreign interference in universities to propose to Government a coherent, well-targeted set of interventions. These actions should be those necessary to reduce and control risks while ensuring universities continue to flourish, providing the education and research Australians require for future prosperity.

In doing so, the Joint Committee should in particular:

  1. explore the value of the University Foreign Interference Taskforce (UFIT) model to identify and guide responses to any further national security gaps that relate to universities;
  2. recommend that the Government create a clear, overarching foreign influence and interference strategy across all of government, mapping out where the various pieces of legislation sit within that framework;
  3. identify the additional support the Government should provide to universities and research bodies to ensure optimum operating systems capable of resisting external interference;
  4. consider the array of checks that universities follow internally and to meet government requirements to ensure that research in potential areas of concern does not lead to harm to national security and to identify ways to simplify and better target those requirements;
  5. recognise that the actions taken in response to the French review provide the required basis to ensure effective freedom of speech and academic freedom as and when incidents occur, with no meaningful difference where international students or staff are involved; and
  6. use the Inquiry to lay to rest concerns that funding from foreign governments for specific centres, projects or education programs is not subject to sufficient scrutiny, consistent with the requirements imposed on all funding that universities receive to advance their missions.

Read the IRU’s full submission (PDF)