Parliament calls out China's student spies

July 9, 2021

Marion Rae - The Canberra Times - Friday 9 July 2021

Students from China at Australian universities could get vital protection from a snooping motherland under new cyber security laws.

Parliament's powerful intelligence and security committee has told university leaders they need to do more for students who feel pressured by China, and fear for their families.

"I appreciate universities can't go to China and protect them from a knock at the door," committee chair James Paterson said during a public hearing on Friday.

He said universities had a legal obligation for the welfare of students on campus and a moral duty to uphold academic freedoms.

"If they're being spied upon by their fellow students or others, and you're not taking steps to protect them from it, then you're letting them down," he said.

The government senator cited a recent Human Rights Watch report that found Australian universities failed to protect the academic freedom of Chinese students and academics who did not follow the views of the Chinese Communist Party.

The committee was told of incidents at the University of Technology Sydney, where students were harassed and threatened by peers on social media.

"It's deeply concerning to us," Luke Sheehy, representing a network of Australia's technology and public research universities, said.

He said the alliance of universities valued freedom of speech, safety of students and open, public institutions.

But students were operating their own networks across universities, making it harder to intervene.

Conor King of the Innovative Research Universities organisation said past arrangements about student assessment and records of marks focused on how well work was being marked.

"We were not thinking about a foreign country wanting to try and grab hold of that information," he said.

Some universities elsewhere allow students to submit their work anonymously to provide some protection.

Senator Paterson said it was difficult to predict how wide China's sensitivities could be, and students were rightly anxious about electronic submission of work.

Proposed new laws would include universities as critical national infrastructure and make it compulsory to promptly report cyber attacks.

The Australian National University has upgraded its systems after hackers accessed almost two decades of personal records two years ago.

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