11 Sep University of New South Wales refuses to release internal investigation into Chinese influence
Josh Bavas and Conor Duffy – ABC – Friday 11 September 2020
One of the country’s biggest universities was so concerned about the risk of Chinese influence it commissioned an internal investigation into the threat last year.
The University of New South Wales (UNSW) presented the “China Engagement Review and Recommendations Discussion Paper” to its board in August last year.
UNSW was last month embroiled in China-related controversy after a tweet from a university account was deleted and an article calling for greater protections for Hong Kong citizens was temporarily removed from the university’s website.
The ABC obtained basic details of the report under freedom of information laws, however, the university blocked its release, saying it contained “sensitive” information relating to China that would “put the university at a competitive disadvantage”.
The revelation comes as the Federal Government prepares to announce the terms of reference for an inquiry into universities.
It fears Australian researchers are being targeted to quietly patent technology and innovation in China, known as the “Thousand Talents Plan”, however such concerns are yet to be proven.
Liberal Senator James Paterson said while it was “prudent” for universities to conduct their own reviews, they should not necessarily be held from public view.
“Taxpayers spend about $18 billion a year funding universities and it’s absolutely in the public interest for the Australian people to understand how universities manage difficult relationships like their engagement with China,” he said.
“It’s deeply concerning to me that the first instinct of a university, when approached by a journalist about this, is to not be transparent, to not be open and to not provide these documents.
“I’m glad to know that at least there was some internal discussion about that but I think we need to know exactly what the terms of that discussion were, what the advice was, and what action that they took to manage these risks.”
UNSW made headlines last month when its media team temporarily removed an article after an online backlash from Chinese students.
The article’s author and Australian Director of Human Rights Watch Elaine Pearson said UNSW still had questions to answer.
“I am still looking to the university for a clearer public explanation of exactly what occurred,” she said.
“The university owes it to the community to have a public discussion of these issues and I think that will actually help students from other countries to understand what academic freedom means.
Ms Pearson, who is also an adjunct lecturer at the university, believes the China Engagement Review should be made public.
“One would think that transparency is a core university value so I’m pretty disappointed that UNSW has not wanted to disclose these documents,” she said.
“They could redact any commercially sensitive information.
“I think there is a huge public interest in what steps the university is taking to counter Chinese Government and protect academic freedoms.”
UNSW received about $1 billion in financial assistance from the Federal Government last year, with international students contributing about 33 per cent of its total revenue of $2.33 billion.
In deciding to withhold the documents, a UNSW legal officer said while there was a presumption in favour of disclosing information, the factors against the release held “significant weight”.
“Such information would be valuable to the university’s competitors, the disclosure of which would put the university at a competitive disadvantage and prejudice the university’s legitimate business, commercial and financial interests,” they said.
“The information identified is marked ‘confidential’ and contains sensitive details about the university’s operations and its strategic direction.”
The ABC is appealing the decision.
Alex Joske, from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said some universities had been too cautious about offending China.
“I think some universities are still really teaching themselves about China at the leadership level,” he said.
“While they’re building that understanding, they’ve tended to take unreasonably cautious or even a paranoid position about some of these engagements with China.
“I think this has potentially prevented good policy making by universities — measures that would cut out risky kinds of behaviour like collaborating with Chinese military-linked institutions while also knowing when to support things like freedom of speech.”