In its submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, Universities Australia has urged the Australian Government to ensure its legislation does not jeopardise these crucial national assets.
Universities Australia Acting Chief Executive Catriona Jackson said Australia’s globally-connected universities were vital to Australia’s diplomatic, trade, economic and cultural ties.
She urged the Government to consult carefully and consider amendments to its legislation as needed to avoid unintended consequences that would hamper these assets.
“It’s vital for Australia’s strategic interests that our university sector can continue its successful global outreach and research partnerships,” she said.
“These activities – and the academic freedom we uphold – are fundamental to the health of Australia’s democracy and prosperity.”
It was also crucial that universities can continue to speak up about the wellbeing of their international students, who contribute vastly to Australia’s cultural and economic success.
Universities are concerned that aspects of the legislation as currently drafted could jeopardise Australian world-class research collaborations – including on potentially life-saving discoveries.
Researchers who collaborate with international partners, and subsequently seek to have the findings of their research incorporated into policy, are particularly at risk under the changes.
There are also concerns that it could potentially impede a university from speaking on behalf of its international students on issues of student wellbeing.
“We want to talk through these issues carefully and methodically with Government to avoid unintended consequences,” Ms Jackson said.
Universities Australia notes that the US legislation on which the Australian Bill is based includes an exemption for academic purposes which has not been included here.
Without such an exemption, there is a risk that researchers could risk sanctions – including jail time in some very specific circumstances – simply for pitching sensible policy ideas that could improve the lives of Australians.
“Australian universities respect the need for national security, but we must make sure that we get such legislation right.”
UA’s submission recommends that:
- Government undertake a thorough consultation process with stakeholders, particularly the higher education sector, before bringing the Bill back to Parliament for consideration;
- draft a specific exemption for activities that are predominantly academic. At a minimum, such a definition should include teaching and research activities, including the communication of research findings by any means;
- amend proposed section 11 of the Bill to remove references to ‘collaboration’;
- expand exemptions for legitimate business dealings and development in the Bill. This should include the normal conduct of business dealings of both commercial enterprises and the already heavily regulated core business of non-profit organisations such as universities; and
- exempt legitimate advocacy on behalf of international students and other vulnerable groups (such as temporary workers) from this scheme.