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Balancing collaboration and security: a high-wire challenge for Australia’s universities

Published 17 Jul 2021

Address to the Australian Institute of International Affairs, NSW

on 8 June 2021


Dr Ross McLennan 

Dr McLennan is Executive Director, Research Services for Macquarie University. He is also the President of the Australasian Research Management Society (ARMS), with over 3,500 members from universities, independent research institutions, government and health and research organisations in our region including Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. His previous positions include leading research offices at Griffith University and the University of South Australia. He was CEO of Scannexus – a European Centre of Excellence in Maastricht, Netherlands which pools international technological, clinical and academic expertise – and played a leading role in the Scottish Academic Health Science Collaboration, facilitating strategic collaborative partnerships between the Scottish medical school community, public sector funding agencies and large pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.

A video of his address and the subsequent discussion can be seen here:

An essential factor in the success of Australia’s university system is its openness to the world. Amongst the multiple benefits that this generates in world-class performance and reputation; it enables Australia to make cutting-edge research breakthroughs as our own world-class academics work in collaboration with others worldwide at the forefront of their field. Indeed, the Australian Government actively supports such international collaborations through numerous programs and policy settings across a wide range of initiatives and portfolios.

This crucial international engagement occurs in an ever more complex world. New challenges and threats are evolving globally, including exploitation of digital approaches. For decades, Australia’s universities have had strong working relationships with government agencies on security matters and have regularly sought advice to help safeguard their people, research, systems, and intellectual property, as well as rebuff attempts to breach security.

Against this backdrop, in late 2019 the Federal Government released the Guidelines to counter foreign interference in the Australian university sector. This document identifies key themes and objectives to help universities to manage and engage with risk and build greater resilience against foreign interference. Subsequently, the Government progressed several new pieces of legislation to support the expectations outlined in the Guidelines. Each of these will have a significant effect on universities –one key change is the introduction of stringent new reporting requirements around the arrangements and agreements that Australian universities have with foreign entities.

This address will explore the delicate balancing act for the sector as it works to fortify the current protections against these complex risks, while preserving the openness and collaboration that is crucial to the success of Australia’s world-class university system. Acknowledging that there are a range of policy issues that impact on the student cohort, a particular focus of my talk will be on the potential consequences to Australia’s standing as a ‘clever country’ – at the forefront of research and development, and the generation of impact for the benefit of society.

Opportunity – international collaboration in research

There is nothing new about transnational collaborations in higher education. From their very beginning, academies of higher learning have welcomed scholars from around the world to exchange information and to collaborate in the production of new knowledge.

Over recent decades, however, the rationales for forging these partnerships have expanded greatly, and are now focused not only on teaching and information exchange but also on research. An emphasis on research collaborations across national boundaries can now be found in policy statements of most leading higher education institutions around the world. These statements suggest that a globally distributive system of knowledge development and dissemination demands regularized, ongoing, and symmetrical transnational links.

In this increasingly globalised higher education sector, international research collaboration has become a key feature of Australian public research policy.  In essence, harnessing the potential opportunities that research presents to generate benefits that improve the future for all Australians – as well as delivering economic value, enhancing global reputation, and delivering policy objectives.

When international research teams collaborate, they bring together different cultural perspectives and methodological approaches, widening the perspective of analysis and interpretation. Such engagement enables the pooling of resources to create larger and more extensive networks of knowledge; international collaboration increases the reach and impact of a country’s research and has significant career implications for individual researchers.

Much of Australia’s success in research has been built upon financial and esteem-based incentives that encourage researchers to produce academic papers. In the university sector, there has been strong evidence that this focus has led to dramatic increases in research production.

This has been due, in part, to the success of Federal Government policies, such as the Higher Education Research Data Collection and Excellence in Research for Australia, which deliver financial rewards and contribute to institutional reputation. Such incentives are reinforced by Australia’s project-based funding through the Australian Research Council (ARC) and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) which are awarded in large part based on publication ‘track record’.

It is widely accepted that international research collaboration increases the reach and academic impact of domestic research, as can be measured through proxies such as citations of academic articles, or in the patent literature.

As just one example, analysis of the normalised citation rates for NHMRC-funded publications authored with and without an international co-author shows a doubling of relative citation impact for publications with an international collaborator. Such evidence highlights the ability of Australian government funding to mobilise the world’s best researchers on Australian projects and for this to translate into greater visibility and peer recognition of Australian research.

International collaborations are an opportunity to showcase research institutions’ capacities on the world stage. Besides increased awareness and prestige, international reputational surveys form a significant component of leading world-university ranking systems.

On the back of research rankings results, Australian universities and other research institutions leverage their reputations in particular research disciplines to become a partner of choice for overseas researchers and companies. International relationships facilitate an entrée into other audiences and outlets for Australian research and potential access to overseas capital and markets.

Indeed, the National Health and Medical Research Council has an International Engagement Strategy which states the goal of “fostering international cooperation to pool resources and talent for complex health and medical research projects that could not otherwise be undertaken. This cooperation can address known and emerging research gaps and challenges, increase scientific impact and build capacity for Australia.”

To achieve this, the NHMRC partners with international agencies through bilateral and multilateral programs to fund research with the greatest quality and scientific impact. In 2019, the Funding Council allocated $20 million for research grants through multilateral and bilateral programs. This investment leveraged almost five times that amount in additional funding through international partner agencies and involved research partnerships with 54 countries.

The same is true of sharing technologies and data collection with international research partners. Large telescopes and particle accelerators, for example, with budgets in the billion dollar range and timeframes for design and construction of decades, would likely be out of the question without international cooperation.

Such examples show how collaboration enables expensive, large-scale projects to go ahead, where no individual nation or funding organisation would have sufficient ‘convening power’ to bring the necessary resources together.

While direct economic investment from abroad into Australian research is desirable in its own right, this is only one of the many economic benefits that flow from international research collaboration.

Research and non-research job creation, leveraging domestic funding to attract international funding, encouraging trade and investment opportunities, sharing risks associated with large infrastructure and getting projects to scale – such indirect benefits, while difficult to fully account for and calculate are significant drivers of investment into Australia.

Research collaboration can also play an important role in achieving a range of policy outcomes (exercising ‘soft power’, creating and bolstering bilateral and multilateral diplomatic relationships, meeting international obligations such as development aid) – in each case, research relations, embedded in policy planning, act as a means for successful policy outcomes.

Since 1945, Australia has made important contributions to multilateral treaties on a range of issues such as international trade, Antarctica, World Heritage, marine pollution, the law of the sea, international fisheries, ozone depletion, biodiversity conservation and climate change.

These problems clearly cross national borders. Issues such as the need for global standards in ICT for activities around information exchange, data access, network operating and security protocols also require collaborative, global responses. In each case, Australia’s contribution to these major international issues has drawn heavily on its research base.

As a final point of context, who are Australian researchers collaborating with?

Over the last two decades, a new world order for science and technology has emerged.

In 1960, American R&D accounted for almost 70% of the world total. By 1995, it was down to 40% and it is now close to 25%. Even so, in 2017 the US R&D system was still twenty times bigger than Australia’s.

China now accounts for roughly the same share of global science as the US and is challenging US leadership in key areas such as space, artificial intelligence, energy and communications technology.

Depending on which data you use, China is about to become – or has already become – Australia’s largest partner.

Enduring and emerging threats and risks from international collaboration

The globalisation of science and technology also brings new risks to national security. Governments and research institutions are increasingly focussed on the challenges of “illiberal innovation”, the risks of foreign interference (and undisclosed foreign influence) and intellectual property theft, and the application of science and technology by authoritarian governments to uses contrary to democratic values and human rights.

Foreign interference has been thrust into the international spotlight after Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 US Presidential and the 2017 French presidential election campaign.

This is not new. Nations have attempted to interfere in one another’s politics, for their own benefit, since the dawn of history. The aggressor may have diverse motivations: they may want the target to change its foreign policy positions; it may have ideological motives like promoting democracy or discrediting it, and the aggressor may even seek regime change; or the target state might be of strategic value in the global power struggle between super powers.

Two new accelerators that have raised fresh alarms in governments are (i) the interconnected nature of the global economy, and (ii) use of technology to amplify this interference while keeping it disguised and plausibly deniable.

The University sector recognises that, theoretically, there is a degree of foreign interference risk in everything we do – teaching and learning, research, engagement, the activities of professional and academic staff – and that risk is not only external but also could be internal. Universities understand that risk may be present or may emerge in either established or new relationships, to varying extents and in different forms.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, corroborated details of specific examples of actual foreign interference in Australia’s universities are hard to come by.

According to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and Australian Federal Police, with foreign governments seeking to get inside knowledge of Australian research and technology, the higher education and research sector is considered to be one of the “at risk” parts of the community.

The Head of ASIO, Mike Burgess, has gone as far as to say that the scale of foreign interference in universities is higher than at any time since the Cold War and has revealed ASIO had 60 engagements with universities last year.

ASIO have provided four anonymised examples of incidents it is aware of:

  • researchers and their families who have been threatened or intimidated by actors seeking to have their sensitive research provided to a foreign state
  • universities have been threatened through financial coercion should critical research continue.
  • instances where academics have self-censored their course material in order to avoid adverse outcomes such as cuts to foreign funding or threats from individuals who may be linked to a foreign government; and
  • attempts to steal sensitive Australian intellectual property as part of cyber compromises.

Of specific relevance to universities has been the attention in the media on international talent programs.

These talent programs broadly take the form of academic awards that require a researcher to affiliate with the awarding institution, spend time overseas, receive payment, gain access to high-value information/data, or gain other professional benefits. Some talent programs provide funding for researchers to establish and run labs overseas.

There are many legitimate and well-recognised programs to support international academic exchange and the global research enterprise that could be described as talent programs.

Recent analyses of China’s talent programs suggest that some programs operate through recruitment of international academics to expand China’s strategic interests. Concerns have been raised that talent programs may increase risks of covert foreign interference or may lead to the leakage or theft of Australian-funded research and intellectual property, and/or strategic technologies.

Universities view these concerns seriously and typically include recruitment to talent programs as part of its program of continuous improvement of due diligence and risk management. Specific issues remain a rare occurrence in the public discourse in this country.

In the USA, however, national security officials have brought a number of criminal cases relating to membership of foreign talent programs against researchers and students from a variety of institutions across that country.

In fact, unsurprisingly, universities have a long history of working with government departments and security agencies to counter foreign interference. In recent times, universities have heard the call from security agencies regarding the increasing levels of foreign interference in Australia. They have also experienced first-hand the impacts of it through incidents such as large-scale cybersecurity breaches.

Relationships have been built between agencies and the sector as a whole and individual institutions over many years. Universities look to the intelligence agencies as their primary source of information regarding the scale and extent of threats – they have expertise and resources far beyond ours!

Changing policy and legislative landscape

As I have indicated, the success of our universities is predicated on their ability to engage, and to collaborate with our international partners.

In managing their collaboration, universities are conscious that our connected world presents not only opportunities but risks. Whilst the threat of foreign interference has risen in recent years, Universities have a long history of managing their international engagement in a national security context.

Universities continue to build on such successes in partnership with Government to further strengthen their resilience to foreign interference.

Existing requirements include (but are not limited to) the Defence Trade Controls Act 2012; the Export Controls Act (2020); the Foreign Influence and Transparency Scheme Act 2018; the Autonomous Sanctions Act 2011; and updating the Government on foreign interference activities through the Compacts agreement between the Commonwealth and higher education providers.

An example of this is the close work between Government and the university sector on the Defence Trade Controls Act. Universities continue to have systems and checks to ensure compliance with defence sensitive technologies. Feedback from Government officials suggests an abundance of caution and over-reporting to Government agencies, rather than a dearth.

However, the regulatory and legislative requirements on universities continue to grow.

The clearest expression of this has been the establishment of the University Foreign Interference Taskforce (UFIT), comprising both Government and university representatives. Soon after its commencement, UFIT released the Guidelines to Counter Foreign Interference in the Australian University Sector. Both these initiatives are recognised by our international counterparts as examples of best practice.

The Guidelines were released in November 2019. This document identified key themes and objectives to help universities to manage and engage with risk and build greater resilience against foreign interference. There is an emphasis on educative and policy responses to assist risk assessment and promote mitigation strategies, as well as recognition of the need for proportionality and a continuous improvement approach. Universities have actively embraced the directions provided by the Guidelines and I will touch on some examples of the work that has been done in the intervening period to engage on these issues.

To bring the Guidelines “to life”, there are major pieces of legislation recently enacted or currently under consideration which intersect with the expectations outlined in the Guidelines. Each of these will have a significant effect on universities:

As an example, late last year the Government proposed legislation to regulate dealings with overseas governments and institutions by State and Territory Governments and their ‘associated entities’. The Australia’s Foreign Relations Act was passed into law on 8th December 2020.

I am sure that you will be aware of the reach and impact of this Act after the Foreign Minister recently acted under this instrument to “cancel” the Victorian Government’s Belt and Road agreements with China, along with two other agreements between that state and Iranian and Syrian entities.

Universities were a late inclusion in the legislation – seemingly on the basis that Universities might be doing something of concern, but we’re not sure what, so let’s capture everything!

I will come back to the details and impact of this Act in more detail later.

In its proposal for a Commonwealth Integrity Commission, the Government’s aim is to establish ‘a centralised agency to investigate criminality and corruption in the public sector’ and the proposed legislation captures public universities.  Universities would be open to investigation for breaches of law under, for example, the Autonomous Sanctions Act, the Biosecurity Act, the Defence Trade Controls (DTC) Act, and the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme (FITS) Act.

Whilst the concept of an Integrity Commission is to be supported, there are several issues with the inclusion of universities in the scope of the proposed Commission, including:

  1. The policy rationale for the inclusion of universities is unclear. Matters of corrupt conduct covered by the draft Bill are already offences under other acts, which already have appropriate powers of investigation, compliance and prosecution.
  2. Adding the Commonwealth Integrity Commission, on top of existing State/Territory laws and other recent and currently proposed legislative changes, will subject the higher education sector to a heavy and overlapping regulatory burden. This burden is not proportionate to the relative risk and would come at the expense of core activities in teaching, research and community engagement.
  • As drafted, the threshold for ‘corrupt conduct’ for universities is lower than any other entity proposed to be regulated by the Bill. The Bill’s definitions of corrupt conduct in respect of entities other than higher education providers and research bodies appropriately use concepts such as abuse of office and perversion of the course of justice.  In the case of higher education providers, however, corrupt conduct ‘need only constitute a listed offence’, including such broad terms as any offence under any relevant State/Territory Act. How this is consistent with a reasonable definition of corruption is unclear!

The Security Legislation Amendment (Critical Infrastructure) Bill 2020 is currently under review.

This proposed legislation will allow the Minister for Home Affairs to declare assets as critical infrastructure, to require risk management programs for such assets and notification of cybersecurity incidents, to set limits on the use of such assets, and to impose civil penalties where appropriate.

Both the higher education and research, and the health care and medical sectors, are included in the legislation’s list of ‘critical infrastructure sectors’ and, importantly, the whole university or hospital is regarded as a critical asset.  The intention is to protect such sectors against both natural and ‘human-induced’ hazards.

There are potential problems, given both the wide extent of proposed ministerial discretion and because of potential impacts on academic freedom.  There are also concerns that if implemented as drafted the legislation may deter industry from collaborating with universities.

This legislation is expected to be passed and details of implementation settled by mid-2021.

Recent indications from the Department of Home Affairs is, fortunately, that their recommendation is likely to be that (at this stage) the only aspect of university operations that should be regulated under the Act is the mandatory reporting of cyber breaches – eminently sensible.

The university sector awaits the progression of the Bill with bated breath.

In parallel with these current legislative steps, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security has commenced an inquiry into National Security Risks affecting the Australian higher education and research sector.

This inquiry was prompted by the Minister for Home Affairs and includes in its terms of reference a focus on ‘the Sector’s awareness of foreign interference, undisclosed foreign influence, data theft and espionage, and its capacity to identify and respond to these threats’.

The Committee is due to report imminently. The hearings were, at times, combative!

Impact on universities and research

The cumulative impact of all foreign interference related measures is as yet unclear but is expected to be significant.

The Guidelines developed by UFIT have served as the basis for strengthening university policies, practices and procedures on countering foreign interference. Universities over the last 12-18 months have been active across all key themes, notwithstanding the impact of COVID-19 on their operations.

Needless to say, there is also substantial work being done to tighten cybersecurity at universities and a strong focus on Communication and education

To strengthen Governance and risk frameworks, Universities have ensured that they have policies, structures, and frameworks in place to promote and strengthen a culture of security, and resilience to foreign interference.

Many universities, including my own, have established a foreign interference committee, working group, or equivalent championed and chaired by a Deputy Vice-Chancellor. Membership of these groups includes representatives from human resources, information technology, legal, risk and compliance, and the research office. These Committees have taken oversight of the overall framework to counter potential foreign interference by ensuring an integrated, cross-organisational approach. It also reviews projects with higher exposure to foreign interference risk.

Due diligence has been further upregulated from its existing levels – with the objective of ensuring that the nature and purpose of collaboration with international entities is transparent, undertaken with full knowledge and consent, and in a manner that avoids harm to Australia’s interests. Agreements with international partners are screened to ensure that they comply with Australian law and address potential threats to the integrity of the research and reputation of the university and identify emerging or potential risks, including any foreign interference and security risks.

Universities are aware of foreign influence issues, are proactive in addressing them, and are taking a responsible approach while defending and supporting the notion of research and discovery remaining fundamentally a global and shared endeavour.

Every university can point to specific examples where it has chosen not to undertake research activity due to the combination of topic and partner.

Returning to the requirements of the Australia’s Foreign Relations Act, this new legislation requires that a public university must notify the Federal Government when entering into any agreement with a foreign government entity or a foreign university that does not have ‘institutional autonomy’. The Government may then choose to veto the Agreement on the basis that it ‘would adversely affect Australia’s foreign relations or would be inconsistent with Australia’s foreign policy’.

Herein lies a challenge for universities – being the scope covered by these definitions:

First, in terms of what foreign entities are included – it encompasses all national or state governments and their departments or agencies (such as international funding bodies), and any foreign university that does not have institutional autonomy (that is they could be deemed to be under the control of a foreign government).

Secondly is the definition of “arrangement” which extends to any formal and informal written arrangement, agreement, contract or understanding that is between a foreign entity and the Australian University including someone who could reasonably be considered to be acting on behalf of the University.

Now, a formal agreement is an easy thing to identify. Universities have well established due diligence processes and clear delegations of authority for signing such documents. Informal arrangements on the other hand, could be email exchanges where two academics agree to co-develop a conference on their research topic. As you can imagine, this latter category are likely to be numerous and tend not to be held in a central repository!

As of 10 March this year, universities have had to submit details of all prospective foreign arrangements. As you can imagine, there has been a significant awareness raising activity across the sector to adapt to this requirement.

In addition, the second initial obligation for universities is, before 10 June, to declare all of the active agreements which they have struck with foreign entities that fall within the scope of the Act. A new task force in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will then review these before the Foreign Minister decides on their continuation or exercising her veto.

Literally as I talk to you know, an army of people across Australia’s universities finalising their search across databases of agreements for research, education, training, engagement, and general collaboration to identify those that (according to those broad criteria) require reporting to DFAT. Final numbers aren’t yet known, but it is anticipated that the total number of existing foreign arrangements across the sector will be in the region of 10,000 to 15,000. These all require review and await a decision as to if they are able to continue or will be vetoed.

As I have mentioned, we are in the early days of observing the impact of this legislation. Needless to say, the concern is not only on the significant administrative burden imposed, but also ensuring that there is no chilling effect on research with international partners.

Whilst the vast majority of research is not impacted by this piece of legislation or the overall focus on countering foreign interference, there are already a few reports being shared across the sector where partners have downgraded the scope of collaboration – citing the risks of commencing research that may be subsequently vetoed. Without any examples of precedence of what activities will/will not be vetoed by government, it is difficult to allay these fears. Also, there are early signs of self-censorship with some researchers (looking to maximise how they spend their finite time) are worried that the “compliance burden is too weighty to pursue collaboration with some countries”.

We are also seeing funding agencies compiling their own dossiers on researchers and their possible interactions with foreign entities.

Those of us in positions to facilitate research work to minimise these burdens, to put in place protections, and to continue with our education and awareness raising to explain the global context whilst working to reassure researchers and partners that their work is valid and supported. For now, we wait and see – so watch this space …

Conclusion and wrap up

In conclusion, Australian universities are a key national resource. Unlike physical resources, they provide limitless potential through the generation of ideas that enable society and the economy to continuously improve. Universities also provide our graduates with the education and skills to navigate not just the challenges of the present but the unknowns of the future.

Our world, notwithstanding the events of the past year, is a globally interconnected system. The ability of a country to deliver on its social and economic aspirations is strongly related to its ability to effectively connect with the world around it and utilise the knowledge and resources to its advantage.

There are few industries or endeavours that match the interconnected nature of the global research system. Globally, $US 2 trillion is invested in research every year. Australia represents about one per cent of this expenditure. In knowledge generation terms, we generate 4.2 per cent of the world’s scientific publications but comprise only 0.3 per cent of its population. We make the most of every dollar invested and boost our impact through global connections. Domestically, universities perform 90 per cent of basic research in Australia. This is where new ideas spring from. Universities drive not only the basic research that provides some of the most transformative breakthroughs, but also the applied research which enables the translation of the ideas into services, products, and systems that underpin every aspect of our lives.

Additional legislation is well intentioned – to protect Australia’s National Interests – but implementation has the potential to negatively impact on Australia’s capabilities in research and development and the standing of our universities.

This is the reality that faces all publicly-funded institutions – which also face the challenge of shortfalls in revenue due to the contraction of international student enrolments.

Thank you for your attention.