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Australia steps in to tackle ‘foreign interference’ in its universities

CANBERRA (Australia): Australia is going to formally investigate foreign interference in its universities amid rising Chinese influence on campuses.

The push follows reports of students and staff “self-censoring” on sensitive political issues such as the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

The government says the universities have also increasingly been targeted by state-sponsored cyberattacks.

Canberra on Wednesday announced an intelligence taskforce to combat such threats.

“Universities must act to protect the valuable information they hold where it is in the national interest to do so,” Education Minister Dan Tehan said in a national address.

He linked efforts to tackle foreign interference to “broader” efforts to protect free speech and academic freedom on campuses.

Universities Australia, a representative group, welcomed the announcement but said a “careful balance” was needed.

“We must continue to safeguard our security without undermining the invaluable asset of our openness,” Chair Prof Deborah Terry said on Wednesday.

While the government did not name any countries on Wednesday, there have been recent concerns about China’s alleged influence on campuses.

This was highlighted in recent weeks by violent clashes at a number of Australian universities between students supporting the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and mainland Chinese students defending their government.

Student protesters clashed at a pro-Hong Kong demonstration at the University of Queensland in July

“We must… encourage an environment where disagreement does not involve verbal attacks or threats,” Mr Tehan said on Wednesday.

“The sense that some students and staff at universities are self-censoring out of fear they will be shouted down or condemned for expressing sincerely held views and beliefs, or for challenging widely accepted ideas, should concern all of us,” he said.

Tensions have also arisen from previous reports of Chinese students aggressively disputing the curriculum in Australian classrooms.

Australia’s higher education sector has been criticised for being heavily financially reliant on international enrolments. Chinese students account for close to a third of international students in Australia.

The government says its University Foreign Interference Taskforce – made up of intelligence agencies, education bureaucrats and university leaders – is aimed at strengthening the cyber defences of universities.