Lessons for the UK from the passage of Australia’s Foreign Relations Bill

Legislation rushed through Australia's Federal Parliament gives the Federal government unprecedented powers of veto over universities' international collaborations. Minto Felix wonders if the same could happen in the UK.

Minto Felix is a DPhil student at the University of Oxford and a former associate editor of Wonkhe.

Australia’s controversial Foreign Relations (State and Territories) Bill has recently become law, introducing with it a great deal of new uncertainties within the higher education sector and representing uncharted intervention by the government into the day-to-day affairs of the nation’s public universities. It is a move that UK institutions and agencies must watch with great caution.

The bill provides the Foreign Minister with new powers to review all agreements that universities have with foreign governments and their associated entities, to ensure that these agreements support Australia’s foreign policy objectives. Importantly, it affords the Foreign Minister the discretion to prevent or terminate any agreements that are deemed to not serve Australia’s foreign policy interests.

The bill constrains the institutional autonomy of Australia’s public universities, who are not government entities, and saddles them with enormous compliance burdens. More fundamentally, however, it limits the capacity of universities to forge new knowledge and collaborate on shared, enduring challenges, which often transcends the foreign policy mood set by the government of the day.

It potentially threatens many thousands of education and research agreements, from the mundane to the expensive. Collaborations with Horizon Europe? The US’ National Institutes of Health or DARPA? Think again.

It also appears counter to the many robust processes in place between universities with national security agencies and government departments who work collectively to ensure that mutually beneficial agreements with foreign entities are engaged into, while heeding to the required national security checks and balances. These arrangements, which were even identified as “best practice” in a 2019 UK Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry, have now been cut against in favour of a blunter, short-sighted policy instrument.

Dictatorship in a democracy

To those following higher education policymaking in Australia, this move may not seem out of character for a government that takes a lukewarm approach to its dealings with the university sector.

In recent months, the Morrison government has legislated to reduce per student tuition funding while increasing student places; excluded public universities from the income support scheme introduced in the wake of the pandemic (the same scheme that multimillion gambling companies were eligible for); and until very recently, was dragging its feet to provide funding relief to preserve universities’ research capacity at a time of significant revenue downturn.

The introduction of the legislation also arrives as the highly influential Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security initiates a wide-ranging inquiry into national security risks affecting the Australian higher education and research sector.

As set out in its terms of reference, the inquiry will look at the sector’s awareness of “foreign interference, undisclosed foreign influence, data theft and espionage, and its capacity to identify and respond to these threats.” Despite some of the world’s most stringent security protocols that Australia’s universities abide by, including the Defence Trade Controls Act and a joint taskforce comprising government agencies and university representatives that is engaged in measures to tackle foreign interference, it appears that changing geopolitical relations has the government anxious about universities’ activities with foreign entities.

Somewhat ironically, this legislation is among the gravest of interventions by government in the affairs of universities. It disrupts the very core university autonomy in a democratic society, and the open exchange of knowledge that quality, university-led research relies upon. The Chair, Group of Eight (equivalent to the UK’s Russell Group), Margaret Gardner likened the Bill to “the sort of thing you see in authoritarian dictatorships.” Her words are a bold condemnation of the government’s actions, and one that is altogether accurate.

Foreign Relations or China relations?

While the Bill purports to be country agnostic, it is difficult to disagree with the assertion that this looks an awful lot like a “China Relations Bill” rather than a Foreign Relations Bill. To better understand this legislation, one only needs to scan the latest newspaper headlines to realise there is a broader tit-for-tat at play between China and Australia – on matters as wide ranging as China placing tariffs on barley, to suspending beef exports, actions which swiftly followed after Australia called for an inquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 coronavirus.

However, the impact of the Foreign Relations Bill and related interventions could strain China-Australia research relations, and carry many more long term adverse consequences than can be offset by potential, short-term, political benefit.

China is Australia’s leading research partner, having overtaken the US in recent years, with more Australian-led scientific publications involving researchers from China than any other country. There are shared platforms, joint graduate schools, and many other programs of work engaged in tackling challenges that are of importance to both nations, in areas such as climate change and advanced manufacturing.

While scholars consistently highlight that research collaborations typically work independently of the geopolitics of the day, if there are repeated, direct curbs to these interactions, then sustaining these endeavours can become quite difficult.

Tensions in the US-China research relationship is an instructive example. Actions by the US government to scrutinise federally funded research activities, issuing warnings to university leaders of nefarious activities from within, banning visas and so on, do more to hurt the US’ research strength and productivity than anything else.

Lee and Haupt’s 2019 analysis of the patterns of science co-publications between the two countries show that that US research publications would have declined in overall terms without its collaborative works with China. The study showed that of the top 500 cited co-published articles, China-affiliated researchers were first authors on almost half of all publications and that China played a more significant role in funding co-publications year-on-year.

It would serve Australia well to chart a different course to the approach taken by the US but if the Foreign Relations Bill and related activities is any indication of the Australian government’s current thinking, then it does not bode well for the country nor the global scientific community at large. Now more than ever, the world needs the flow of open, collaborative and globally engaged research to tackle serious global challenges.

Lessons to learn (and avoid)

Turning to the UK, the 2019 Foreign Affairs committee’s A cautious embrace: defending democracy in an age of autocracies report rehearses debates similar to what has been observed from Australia, with the committee recommending that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office play a more proactive role in advising on threats to UK universities. The committee also encourages the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to work with overseas governments, including that of Australia to learn from international practice.

Given the two systems often import each other’s policy approaches, there are lessons for British universities and policymakers to learn as well as avoid from the Australian experience. Indeed, it is the UK that has many world-leading practices in this area, exemplified by the Haldane Principle to protect researcher autonomy, which many other countries including Australia are envious of.

The recently released Universities UK guidance document Managing risks in internationalisation: security related issues is a helpful resource for the sector to consider these issues in a systematic way. It rightly emphasises the importance of due diligence and values when engaging into overseas partnerships, the need for stronger cybersecurity infrastructure, and ways to ensure robust partnerships in relation to joint research activity and transnational education.

However, the challenge remains ensuring that policymakers have confidence in the measures that universities have in place to prevent foreign interference. This includes the need for these actors to have a sufficient understanding of what is involved in research activity and how universities enter into partnerships.

The Australian experience with the Foreign Relations Bill highlights what can emerge when there is a gulf in understanding and attitude between the university sector and government about research activity with overseas partners. As the legislation is written at present, it is a political intervention that is disproportionate to the risks at hand.

Equally, there is also the need for greater transparency and communication to universities’ own constituents and with the wider public about these matters. In Australia, certain sections of the media have peddled stories about these issues that are based in little to no evidence, which in turn, has become the basis by which government inquiries are announced.

It is in the best interests of UK media outlets, especially those with an interest in higher education policy issues, and the wider public to have a strong understanding of the value of global research collaborations, and moreover, the foundations, norms, indeed tensions upon which these collaborations are forged and grappled with. Given the unpredictability of geopolitics, reasserting these principles must become an even bigger priority for university leadership and communication teams all over.

In addressing the perceived and real security concerns at hand, it will be vital for UK universities to develop policies and measures that are proportional to the security risks, while ensuring that research collaborations are able to occur freely and openly. There is an opportunity for the sector to take a different, and more flexible route with government, than that currently in train by your friends and collaborators in the land Down Under.

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