Australian universities recently claimed they were “blindsided” by the government’s new powers to cancel their global agreements.
This is despite what the education sector saw like a year of productive talks to resolve any security concerns through the foreign interference taskforce.
Vicki Thomson, the chief executive of the Group of Eight and a member of the task force, confirmed to Guardian Australia that the government had not flagged its plan to introduce the proposed new powers through the body it set up 12 months ago.
Thomson said the university foreign interference taskforce – which brought together universities, security agencies, and government departments – was yet to discuss its role in the current context but argued: “It would be a shame to abandon what has been a highly collaborative and productive process.
“We’d rather have a more consultative process than to be blindsided – which is what we were – on a major piece of legislation,” she said.
Amid increasing tensions in the relationship with Beijing, the government is preparing to introduce a bill to parliament this week giving the foreign affairs minister the power to cancel agreements with foreign governments deemed to go against the national interest. It was signed off by the Coalition joint party room on Tuesday.
Deals reached by universities, state and territory governments, and local councils are expected to be covered by the new bill, which the prime minister, Scott Morrison, has said is aimed at protecting “Australia’s national sovereign interest” rather than being directed against China or any other country.
There is disquiet within Labor ranks about the potential reach of that new measure, as Guardian Australia reported on Monday.
Parliament’s security and intelligence committee is also preparing to investigate concerns about foreign interference in Australian universities amid intense scrutiny of the risk of recruitment programs such as China’s Thousand Talents Plan.
The developments have caused consternation within the higher education sector, particularly because universities believed they had been working to address any concerns through the foreign interference taskforce.
When the task force was set up in August 2019, the education minister, Dan Tehan, said the government was taking action “to provide clarity at the intersection of national security, research, collaboration, and a university’s autonomy”.
It is understood the taskforce’s steering committee typically met weekly when it was intensely focused on developing guidelines to help all participants counter foreign interference in the Australian university sector. It has been chaired by Chris Teal, the national counter foreign interference coordinator at the Department of Home Affairs.