ANU vice-chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt warns academics to get behind uni's foreign interference policies

ANU vice-chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt has told a parliamentary committee the complexities of dealing with foreign influence and interference in higher education. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos
ANU vice-chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt has told a parliamentary committee the complexities of dealing with foreign influence and interference in higher education. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Australian National University academics are being told to get with the program when it comes to following foreign interference policies and mitigating national security risks or be "turned off", the vice-chancellor has warned.

A number of vice-chancellors from the country's top universities appeared before a parliamentary committee on Friday morning probing national security risks within the higher education sector and whether university processes are up to scratch.

The inquiry was launched following concerns raised by researchers over the influence foreign countries, including China, and the suspected involvement of state actors in a number of tertiary education data breaches.

Committee members queried how the universities were ensuring the institutions, which employ thousands of professional and academic staff members, were stamping out areas susceptible to foreign influence and interference.

The universities described the implementation of new processes academics were being asked to comply with following a ramp up of interference efforts, as warned by the national intelligence community.

ANU vice-chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt conceded to committee members it had been a "challenge" with some long-serving academics being hesitant to "buy into" the new processes.

He said those stuck in their old ways would soon have to get on board or face repercussions.

"They really have no choice," Professor Schmidt said on Friday morning.

"After our 2018 cyber incidents, we have invested a huge amount of effort in upping our cyber defences, and that allows us to essentially see our network and understand our vulnerabilities.

"If you choose not to comply, you will be turned off, and you will be dealt with."

The process is ongoing, Professor Schmidt said, but he had confidence the university's integrity would be strong and national security risks limited once everyone was on board with the frameworks.

"I think once that is completed, we will have a high level of compliance but it will never be 100 per cent," Professor Schmidt said.

"From a national security point of view, the overall residual risk to the nation will be very small."

A university spokesperson said it had established an advisory committee consisting of multiple executive-level staff, which met frequently to discuss the institution's challenges.

"We expect our academics to promptly disclose the potential projects, engagements they are working on, or positions they hold with international partners and have set up a simple internal webform that feeds directly into the committee," a spokesperson said.

"Supplementing that, all research contracts, partnership agreements and grant proposals that are going through our internal offices as part of normal business are being flagged and passed to the Foreign Interference Advisory Committee if there is international engagement."

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Earlier in the hearing, Professor Schmidt said he had started receiving briefings from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation in 2016 as the university had a "particularly large exposure" to the risks.

He added things had accelerated considerably in the last three years.

"Those conversations [with ASIO and other intelligence agencies] have increased quite dramatically over the last several years," Professor Schmidt said.

"In 2018, it ramped up dramatically and expanded to other agencies, so ASIO, ASD, ONI, Home Affairs, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

"That reflects, I think, the changing and evolving set of relationships that we [saw] as a nation."

In December 2018, the university experienced a major data breach, which it publicly revealed in mid-2019.

The breach resulted in the data of students and staff members being accessed and copied, but not altered.

It included names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, tax-file numbers, payroll information, bank account details, passports and academic records.

The domestic intelligence agency's head Mike Burgess told the committee during a previous public hearing the actor behind the cyber attack was "known" but he would not reveal the country publicly.

"I do know who was behind it but I would not say that publicly," Mr Burgess said.

"There's not just one country that we should be concerned about ... one country in particular is highly active but they're not alone in that endeavour."

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This story Follow foreign influence rules or 'be turned off', ANU head warns first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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