Red flag for unis management of China influence

Alan Tudge was out early commenting on the Human Rights Watch report on harassment of Chinese students at Australian universities (CMM yesterday)

“Any interference by foreign entities at unis cannot be tolerated. We have already taken several actions to combat foreign interference, working closely with the unis,” the education minister said, (via Twitter)..

He might take some more when the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security completes its report on security risks to universities and research.

HRWs report builds on evidence presented to the committee and some of the recommendations may well influence what the committee concludes needs to be done (CMM March 12 2021).

This is not great for university management: And some lobbies know it. Universities Australia did not argue with the HRW report and called on an HE-government agency united front to protect staff and students from “coercion.”

However, while stating “harassment or censorship is unacceptable” the Group of Eight stated the “issues raised” by HRW “are not characteristic of the typical student experience at Australian universities.”

The Go8 adds it “takes the safety and security of students and staff extremely seriously” but points out, “nor is it solely the responsibility of universities to address these issues – it is a national concern. In this context, the primary responsibility for monitoring the actions of foreign governments on Australian soil lies with the Australian Government and its agencies, not universities.”

While entirely accurate, yesterday was perhaps not the time to state it, or the Go8 the organisation to do it. It may well remind conservative critics of Go8 member the University of Queensland’s treatment of student Drew Pavlou, an outspoken opponent of the university’s links with the Chinese Government.

Uni Queensland always stated the misconduct charges it brought against Mr Pavlou had nothing to do with his campus protests against the China connection – but this may not have been how all the audience of the 60 Minutes episode on the subject saw it (CMM July 20 2020).

Public perceptions are set:  There is certainly a sense in the community that universities have taken China’s shilling. Elena Collinson and Paul Burke (UTS) report a survey that found 48 per cent of the sample agreed “Australian university ties with China compromise Australian freedom of speech” and 81 per cent thought universities “are too financially reliant” on students from China (CMM June 17 2021).

The HRW report, plus commentary and perhaps policy following on it will only entrench such opinions.

The Australian Technology Network gets this. Yesterday it acknowledged, “Human Right Watch’s recommendations demonstrate a deep understanding of the complexity of these issues,” and it “supports the intent of the recommendations to safeguard academic freedom and foster campus environments.”

Which could be an endorsement of the inevitable, depending on what Mr Tudge and colleagues decide to do about whatever the Parly Joint Committee recommends.