House debates

Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Questions without Notice

National Security

2:51 pm

Photo of Celia HammondCelia Hammond (Curtin, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

My question is to the Minister for Education and Youth. Will the minister update the House on how the Morrison government is safeguarding Australians from foreign interference in our universities and protecting government-funded research from being compromised?

2:52 pm

Photo of Alan TudgeAlan Tudge (Aston, Liberal Party, Minister for Education and Youth) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Curtin for her question. As members might know, she's a former law professor and was a university vice-chancellor herself before coming to this place, so she brings enormous experience to this parliament.

As the Attorney-General just noted a moment ago, we are seeing foreign interference levels in this country today which are higher than at any time during the Cold War. That interference goes across all aspects of our community and, unfortunately, universities and the research sector are also part of that. Universities are targeted because they're often working on the development of key technologies, medicines and practices that are fundamental to the future of Australia's economy, our military capabilities and, indeed, our security. Of course, when this is compromised it can cause significant and long-term damage to Australia.

As ASIO has noted to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, there are many examples already where we have seen foreign actors interfering or attempting to interfere with the university sector. For example, they noted that researchers and their families have been threatened, coerced or intimidated by actors seeking to have their sensitive research provided to a foreign state. Some universities have been threatened through financial coercion should critical research continue. There were instances where academics have self-censored their course materials in order to avoid cuts to foreign funding, and there have been attempts to steal sensitive material as part of cybersecurity compromises.

This is completely unacceptable, and the government is taking very strong action to combat these threats. We've already invested $145 million in combating foreign interference, including $1.6 million to strengthen cybersecurity in universities. Since 2020, we've put more requirements on research grants at the Australian Research Council. As you may have seen on the front page of The Australian today, five such grants were knocked back on national security grounds at the end of last year. We're requiring universities to be subject to more of our foreign interference and other national security laws.

We have also convened the world's first universities foreign interference task force and, through this, have developed guidelines for all of the higher education providers to follow, to mitigate foreign interference risks, but this is an ongoing effort. Our universities have often very strong relationships with universities overseas or with governments overseas, and we want those to continue, but one thing we will never do is compromise our national security. We will continue to work with universities to deal with foreign interference to ensure that our research has integrity. (Time expired)