Spy agencies and universities develop foreign interference guidelines

By Shannon Jenkins

November 14, 2019


The federal government has released guidelines to counter foreign interference in the Australian university sector.

A collaboration between government, the university sector, and national security agencies, the guidelines detail practical steps universities can take to ensure they have sufficient protections for students, research data, and academic integrity.

The guidelines were developed following the creation of a foreign interference taskforce in August, prompted by cyber attacks on Australian universities. The director-general of ASIO has said foreign interference against Australia’s interests, such as the research sector, has been at an “unprecedented level”, according to Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton.

Read more: New taskforce will fight foreign interference in universities

The guidelines set out five key themes:

Governance and risk frameworks

Universities have policies, structures, and frameworks in place to promote and strengthen a culture of security, and resilience to foreign interference.

Due diligence

Informed by knowledge of foreign interference risks, universities must know their partners. The nature and purpose of working with international entities should be transparent, and should not harm Australia’s interests. Agreements with international partners must comply with the law, and should address potential threats to the integrity of the research and reputation of the university, and identify emerging or potential risks.

Communication and education

With assistance from government agencies, universities should provide training to staff and Higher Degree Research students on how foreign interference activities may manifest, and provide information on existing supports if foreign interference is suspected.

Knowledge sharing

Universities and the government must raise awareness of emerging threats and experiences of foreign interference by sharing examples among the sector. While universities already share information among the sector and with government, additional knowledge sharing mechanisms could be developed. Security agencies also need to provide better assistance to universities to identify risks.

Cyber security

University digital systems should seek to thwart unauthorised access, manipulation, disruption or damage, and ensure the confidentiality, integrity and availability of information. 

A steering group helped develop the guidelines, chaired by the national counter foreign interference coordinator in the Department of Home Affairs, Chris Teal.

The group also included Cameron Ashe, Home Affairs’ acting national counter foreign interference coordinator; David Learmonth, deputy secretary of higher education, research and international in the Department of Education; Rachel Noble, head of the Australian Cyber Security Centre; Sarah Chidgey, deputy secretary of the integrity and international group in the Attorney-General’s Department; Heather Cook, Australian Security Intelligence Organisation; and Professor Tanya Monro, chief defence scientist in the Department of Defence; as well as various members from the university sector.

University leaders have commended the work that has gone into developing and committing to the guidelines, according to Universities Australia chair Professor Deborah Terry.

“This has genuinely been an equal partnership between universities and government. Our shared aim is to build on existing protections against foreign interference, without damaging the openness and global engagement that are essential to Australia’s success,” she said.

“The intent is not to add to the regulatory or compliance burden for universities, nor to contravene university autonomy – but to enhance resources and intelligence to further safeguard our people, research and technology.”



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