House debates

Monday, 22 March 2021


Foreign Interference in Universities

5:37 pm

Photo of Julian SimmondsJulian Simmonds (Ryan, Liberal National Party) Share this | Hansard source

In her absence, I commend the member for Lindsay on her motion and I really do wish her all the very best. I know she wanted to be here herself, moving this, but she's with her community as they are facing floods in this very tough time. I went through the 2011 Brisbane flood as a local representative, albeit as a local councillor. It's a very tough time for your community. You only hope, as a local representative, that you can rise to the occasion. I know the member for Lindsay will, and that she will support her community admirably.

Like the member for Goldstein and others, I can confirm the Morrison government's commitment to safeguard Australians from foreign interference in our higher education sector, and more broadly, and add my wholehearted support to those efforts. We know that foreign interference is, unfortunately, a reality. But just because it is unfortunate, it doesn't mean we should turn our back on it. It is more important than ever to face up to that unfortunate reality and be prepared to deal with it in Australia's sovereign and national interests. What's more unfortunate is that foreign entities have sought to interfere with Australian sovereign values by infiltrating our universities, and we know this. These are hallowed institutions that are charged with the duty of educating and empowering our youth, and with important research that pushes our nation forward. Because of that, they are an attractive target for foreign interference. And because of that, we must safeguard them to the very best of our abilities.

I'm a strong supporter of the University of Queensland in our electorate of Ryan, of course. It enrols over 55,000 students from both here and abroad. I'm a very proud graduate of it. But I have been concerned for some time about the University of Queensland—because I know it so well—because of its overreliance on overseas students and research funding, particularly from the Chinese market. No inference should be taken from that about the individual international students involved. But with that reliance comes a responsibility as an institution to have appropriate safeguards in place to make sure that our sovereignty is protected and that the important research and values that we as Australians hold so dear are protected.

As I said before, the Morrison government acknowledges the seriousness of the foreign interference that we face in the higher education sector and convened the world's first University Foreign Interference Taskforce in 2019. The task force has implemented robust guidelines for the Australian university sector to ensure strict due diligence and to have conflict-of-interest policies in place to identify and mitigate any risk of foreign interference. We've also invested $1.6 million to combat foreign interference and to strengthen the presence of cybersecurity in the higher education sector.

Mr Deputy Speaker Falinski, Australian universities are among the best in the world; you don't have to be told that. Seven of our very own institutions are ranked globally in the top 100, including the University of Queensland, which, as I said, I was privileged to attend. With the Prime Minister and the Minister of Health, I recently had the privilege of visiting the University of Queensland, specifically the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, to look at what they were doing in the COVID-19 vaccine development space. Unfortunately—we all know the story—the University of Queensland vaccine didn't quite make it to the production stage, but, jeez, they did a fantastic job, and their research is going to continue to push vaccine technology forward into the future. As the previous, Labor speaker pointed out, it's also the home of the Gardasil vaccine.

All of this is testament to the tremendous work and research in our universities, and it goes to demonstrating why we are so passionate about safeguarding it and why universities have a responsibility as the custodians of this important information and work for all Australians. It is why we as the Australian parliament, as the custodians of our universities, need to make sure that our universities are supported in protecting those sovereign interests. And, of course, it's why these universities are such attractive targets for foreign entities who wish to interfere with the work that our universities do.

The $1.6 million of federal funding that I mentioned earlier is helping our institutions to support their IT capabilities to prevent cyberattacks. RMIT will spearhead this initiative on behalf of all universities, to strengthen universities' resilience against cybersecurity attacks, and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation is of course working closely with them to intercept foreign entities seeking to undermine that national sovereignty. This is something that I am passionate about and that the Morrison government is passionate about. We're going to continue to protect our sovereign interests with the support of our national universities.


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