Vice-Chancellor grilled on foreign influence by Intelligence Committee

The Committee grilled uni chiefs this morning about foreign interference in Australian universities

Adelaide Uni Vice-Chancellor Peter Hoj (left) and Deputy VC (Research) Anton Middleberg appeared on livestream this morning.

Adelaide University Vice-Chancellor Peter Høj testified this morning before the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. The committee focused on national security risks affecting the higher education and research sector.

Høj appeared via livestream with Anton Middleberg, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President (Research).

Committee chair, Senator James Paterson, previously used parliamentary privilege to reveal Høj took a $200,000 bonus during his time as University of Queensland Vice-Chancellor for meeting 16 KPIs (key performance indicators), one which was to boost international student enrolments from China.

Human rights campaigner and UQ student, Drew Pavlou, believes both this financial interest, and Høj’s former ties to the Confucius Institute, were key reasons for his suspension in 2019.

Quoting a News Corp interview with the headline “I’ve learned my lesson on China”, Paterson opened by asking Høj what lessons he had learned exactly.

Høj observed that “geopolitically, there has been in a shift in the ground, and the world has changed” regarding Australia and China’s political relationship.

“There was previously strong optimism that the powers of the world could collaborate for the prosperity of the entire population… All the activities, speaking for myself, that we undertook under my leadership at three universities were designed to serve Australia’s national interest best.”

Based on advice by intelligence agencies, “the optimism about sharing for the benefit of all is not as great anymore, and we have to change accordingly.”

Høj said he was unsure who had signed off on the Confucius Institute’s deal to co-fund four credit-bearing courses at UQ which concerned translation, music, and Chinese policy. One, called “Understanding China”, aimed “to provide students with a deeper understanding of China’s global engagement in a changing world.” The course was designed by a UQ lecturer who recently received a fellowship from the Confucius Institute’s governing Council, the Hanban.

Høj reiterated the courses were not “suggested by the Confucius Institute… and [they] were not involved in the development or delivery of the courses”.

Paterson, a steadfast critic of the Chinese state’s expansionism, pressed Høj on why there was no policy in place to prevent “foreign authoritarian” governments funding academic courses, assuming they would be “timeless values”. Høj said he could not confirm or deny whether there was at that particular point in time and said such questions should be directed to UQ.

Høj echoed his February interview with On Dit, at which time he told us:

“At that stage it was felt it was much better to have a seat at the table than Australia having Confucius Institutes and having no influence over what was expected of them. So, I joined the governing body of the Confucius Institute, the Hanban, to have a seat at the table and to put our views forward.”

He added at the hearing, “It was about me being at the table to influence the foreign entity to do the right thing by the countries in which they sought to have Confucius Institutes.”

When Paterson questioned him about Pavlou, Høj reaffirmed that he was not involved “in the conduct of the various inquiries” which resulted in his suspension.

“Much as I assume a State Premier would not get involved in a matter before the courts, I had no role in those matters because it was not open for me to have one” under university policies.

Intelligence agencies cracking down

Australian National University VC, Brian Schmidt, told the Committee that beginning in 2016–2018, the dialogue between universities and University Foreign Interference Taskforce became much more “strategic” in respect to protecting research theft of dual-use technologies by foreign governments (i.e. technologies with both civilian and military applications). This was corroborated by Middleberg for Adelaide University.

ANU VC Brian Schmidt speaking before the Committee.

The Chinese government has enjoyed a fraternal relationship with Australian universities.

In 2016, the Australian Research Council awarded Adelaide University a $400,000 grant for a partnership with the Chinese army-backed Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC). The project summary said it would bolster Australia’s defence materials production, but the research also became available to the People’s Liberation Army.

In 2019, the China’s Thousand Talents Program came under global scrutiny after the US Senate declared it a threat to American interests. The Program gives foreign scientists access to research funding and financial incentives in exchange for allowing the Chinese Communist Party access to their research. China has used AI technology developed by Thousand Talents scientists at UQ to monitor Uyghur Muslims in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, where Uyghurs are being detained en masse and reportedly subject to human rights abuses. Currently, 24 Australian academics are employed as part of the program.

“We continue to strengthen our understanding”

Middleberg said that the University of Adelaide had taken adequate measures to prevent foreign interference.

Each staff member at the Uni has been issued with a notice to declare any “foreign engagements” which could compromise their integrity. Middleberg said they are “approaching 100% completion of that”, pending a “few medical-related people” who have yet to reply. Notably, there has been 100% compliance amongst STEM researchers.

UofA has also established a Defence and Security Committee to have a much higher level of oversight on “more sensitive” research areas.

“At the end of the day, a comprehensive university like ours has to deploy all of our researchers… all of our staff, to helping Australia achieve it’s objectives.”

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