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Education Minister Dan Tehan addresses the National Press Club. Photo: Rohan Thompson, AAP

Tehan: taskforce comes as ‘targeting of Australian universities continues to increase’

Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan has unveiled the details of a university foreign interference taskforce announced during his address to the National Press Club in Canberra.

“The information that our universities hold is of interest to foreign actors, and therefore we need to make sure we’re doing everything in our power to protect that information," he told the National Press Club.

Tehan added that, according to the Australian Cyber Security Centre, "the targeting of Australian universities continues to increase".

"Universities are an attractive target given their research across a range of fields and the intellectual property this research generates. Additionally, state-sponsored cyber adversaries may use university networks as infrastructure due to their reliability and high and varied traffic, thus allowing adversaries to ‘hide in the noise’,” he said.

"When it comes to foreign interference, we are providing clarity at the intersection of national security, research, collaboration and a university’s autonomy.

"Everybody wants a considered, methodical approach to deal with this issue. One that strikes a balance between our national interest and giving universities the freedom to pursue research and collaboration that expands our knowledge and leads to life-improving innovations.

"We must get the balance right. This week the universities, working with our government agencies, produced a road map for the development of the guidelines. This continues the collaborative approach agreed earlier this month when I met with VCs in Wollongong,” he said.

Five overarching principles have been developed to tackle the issue: academic freedom must be safeguarded by security, values and research collaboration; research, collaboration and education must be guided by national interest; security is a collective responsibility guided by individual accountability; security should be proportionate to "organisational risk"; and the security and safety of universities is paramount.

Four key strategic areas have been identified: a cyber security working group, a research and intellectual property group, a "foreign collaboration working group ... that avoids harm to Australia's interests,” and a culture and communication group "that will foster a positive security culture through engagement with government and the broader community to educate, increase awareness and approve research and cyber resilience".

"This process will complement work currently underway by the group involving Defence, other relevant agencies, universities and industry to develop practical, risk-based legislative proposals to address identified gaps in the Defence Trade Controls Act. The Act is designed to prevent the transfer of defence and dual-use technology to those who may use it contrary to Australia’s interests," Tehan said.

He pointed out that the work on foreign interference forms part of a "broader picture", ensuring academic freedom and freedom of speech is protected in Australia's higher education sector.

"To fully protect free speech and academic freedom, Justice French produced a voluntary Model Code for universities that set out a framework to ensure three things: freedom of speech is a paramount value of Australian universities, academic freedom must remain a defining value, and institutional autonomy is central to Australia's higher education sector.

"The sense that some students and staff at universities are self-censoring out of fear they’ll be shouted down or condemned for expressing sincerely held views and beliefs, or for challenging widely accepted ideas, should concern us all," he said.

“For every Australian, and this includes our universities and their staff and students, the test of our commitment to free speech, is whether we are willing to tolerate the speech of others, especially those with whom we most disagree.

"We must foster the ability to listen to other viewpoints and encourage an environment where disagreement does not involve verbal attacks or threats.

"As the Prime Minister has said, we must disagree better. I believe universities want to know if students and staff are afraid to discuss certain topics. It is only through diversity of thinking, perspective and intellectual style that we get innovation and problem solving. It means protecting our institutions from foreign interference, and ensuring freedom of speech."

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