An acknowledged hallmark of Australia’s university system is its openness to the world.
Global engagement allows universities to thrive and flourish, to educate Australia’s future generations alongside the world’s best students, and to enable our world-class researchers to collaborate with their peers worldwide in making cutting edge breakthroughs.
As a country with a small population, we must cooperate with partners overseas if we are to make the most of our talent, and be part of the large teams that dominate most modern, top-of-the line research groups.
Research creates new knowledge that leads to new jobs and new industries. Research expands our understanding of the world around us, and readies us to adapt to challenges and opportunities. The open, globally engaged university research system has never been more important to shaping Australia’s fate.
Universities approach research collaborations with a clear-eyed appreciation that benefit must be weighed against risk. In recent years, significant changes in the global economy have led to different kinds of considerations on both benefit and risk. There are new concerns about exploitation of the very qualities that make our universities such a story of success, openness and global engagement.
Universities understand and accept we are doing business in a world with new realities. We have a full appreciation that research and technology expertise is a high value target for foreign interference.
To address this, in 2019 Universities Australia became a founding member of the University Foreign Interference Task Force (UFIT), a first of its kind partnership between universities and security agencies.
The first major output from UFIT were guidelines composed around five main themes including governance and risk frameworks, due diligence, communication and education, cyber security and knowledge-sharing.
Inside every university, these guidelines are driving careful consideration of a raft of policies, practices and procedures related to global engagement.
This is happening with the support and encouragement of government and security partners on the University Foreign Interference Taskforce.
It is a work in progress but a model approach reaping dividends. Awareness and capacity to detect and address interference has grown across the sector. The UFIT model means universities will continue to adapt to the changing environment as it evolves. And collaboration is essential. We know that there were 60 interactions between ASIO and universities last year.
The world is taking notice of Australia’s sensible approach. UFIT’s guidelines are now regarded as international best practice by Universities Australia’s counterparts, particularly in the UK and Germany.
Universities Australia’s strong submission is that a collegial, collaborative partnership with government is the right approach to addressing foreign interference.
Regulation and legislation have limits in dealing with the ‘grey space’ where the majority of foreign interference operates. Regulatory and legislative regimes provide ‘scaffolding’, but UFIT has the ability to dive into the operations of large complex organisations like universities.
UFIT brings officials from ASIO, the Departments of Education, Home Affairs, Defence and the Attorney General on the Government side to the table with universities to discuss frankly the issues we face and how to best manage them in everyone’s interests.
In evidence to the inquiry last week, Director-General of ASIO Mr Mike Burgess said ‘we are making good progress’. We know this, but are not sitting on the laurels of UFIT’s constructive progress.
Hard work lies ahead, including confronting reports of intimidation and coercion of students.
This is unacceptable conduct, and the sector stands by the values of openness and inclusivity that underpin the success and reputation of our sector. The safety and security of students and their right to free expression and debate is fundamental to every university.
It is important to consider intimidation and coercion of students in the broader context of social cohesion issues affecting the community, generally. In this complex space, universities are but one actor. We cannot address these complex issues alone, and under UFIT, we have the mechanism for meaningful partnership.
Universities understand that one national interest – to be open and thereby contribute to the economic and social prosperity of the nation – has to be carefully balanced against another – national security.
It is vital that we continue to collaborate, but collaborate safely.
Our partnership with government through UFIT is the best way forward.
You can read the full transcript of Ms Jackson’s evidence to the committee on the Australian Parliament House website.