Foreign engagement activities – collaborating within the national interest

Over recent decades, Australia’s economy and the higher education sector have benefited from an expansion in global engagement opportunities. With increasing connectivity through travel and technology, international student numbers grew and collaborative research projects thrived.

More recently, the positive benefits to Australia have been qualified by defence and security agencies which see a down-side to global connectivity.

What does this mean for the higher education sector?

Australia’s Director-General of Security has warned of an “unprecedented scale of foreign interference activity against Australian interests” and identified increased efforts to influence decision-makers across society, including university and research sectors. In 2019, a taskforce comprised of government and higher education representatives released Guidelines to Counter Foreign Interference in the Australian University Sector.

The Guidelines recommend the following broad institutional strategies:

  • Know your engagement partner - conduct the necessary due diligence before committing – be aware of the risks particularly if the activity involves sensitive research, dual-use technologies or valuable intellectual property – consider whether the arrangement meets the legislative criteria for notification as set out in the schemes noted below.
  • Communicate with colleagues about managing foreign interference risks even when those risks may be considered low – be aware and seek guidance on how to deal with undue influence - inform early career researchers and HDR students about these risks.
  • Share knowledge about known and emerging risk factors across the higher education sector – be aware of information issued by government agencies and advisory services and recognise common issues and threats.
  • Protect information and data by promoting a robust cybersecurity culture and best practice security strategies – understand the potential threats and cultivate protective behaviours across the institution.

New laws to protect the national interest

The Australian Government has responded to this heightened “threat environment” by:

  1. Strengthening criminal offences and penalties for crimes relating to foreign interference. Offences now include reckless conduct which facilitates acts of foreign interference by failing to adequately manage potential risks. For example, an employee whose reckless conduct resulted in a foreign actor gaining unauthorised access to sensitive or classified information could face a term of imprisonment for facilitating a foreign interference crime.
  2. Establishing 2 new foreign engagement compliance schemes – the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme and Foreign Arrangement Scheme - to help protect the national interest in the conduct of foreign engagement activities. All personnel should have a general understanding of how these legislative schemes apply to their work area, and when they might have an obligation to notify an arrangement.

A more detailed summary of these legislative requirements and how they affect the University is available here: foreign engagement compliance overview.

What does this mean for the University?

The University of Adelaide is committed to supporting the Australian Government’s national security agenda and understands that these obligations must be given priority consideration before any international engagements proceed.

Notification requirements will add a layer of complexity to some carefully planned university activities, but the unequivocal message from Government is that the context in which these activities are conducted has fundamentally changed. Failure to meet foreign engagement compliance obligations may be construed as contrary to the national interest, attracting additional scrutiny from government agencies who administer the schemes and regulators such as TEQSA. This could result in damage to the University’s reputation, a high level of media commentary and potential loss of support from partner organisations for critical projects.

Other existing laws which may impact foreign engagement activities include Defence Trade Control laws and International Sanctions. You can learn more about these obligations on the University’s Integrity webpage or seek assistance on export and defence control compliance.

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