The head of Australia’s domestic intelligence agency has warned that the Federal Government needs to be “very conscious” of foreign interference in universities.
ASIO boss Duncan Lewis was not willing to say which foreign governments were active on Australian campuses, or give any examples of deliberate intrusions.
But he made it clear that Australian spies were keeping a close eye on the issue.
“We need to be very conscious of the possibilities of foreign interference in our universities,” Mr Lewis told a Senate estimates committee in Canberra.
“That can go to a range of issues. It can go to the behaviour of foreign students, it can go to the behaviour of foreign consular staff in relation to university lecturers, it can go to atmospherics in universities.”
Mr Lewis said providing any more information publicly would compromise his agency’s work.
Australian Government officials have been more open in private.
They say the Chinese Government exerts a heavy influence on Chinese student groups at Australian universities and they have accused Beijing of using those groups to spy on Chinese students in Australia, and to challenge academics whose views clash with the worldview of the Chinese Communist Party.
Security officials say Australia is now working with its Five Eyes partners — the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and New Zealand — to hammer out a strategy to push back against intrusions into Western universities.
Mr Lewis also strongly backed recent comments from the secretary of the Foreign Affairs department, Frances Adamson.
Ms Adamson stirred fresh debate on Australian universities when she used a speech in Adelaide to warn the sector that it needed to be resilient to outside interference, and protect academic freedom.
She also encouraged international students to “respectfully engage” with ideas they disagreed with, and not to “silently withdraw, or blindly condemn”.
Mr Lewis said his concerns about foreign interference were informed by the “investigative work of my organisation”.
“It is an issue, and I certainly strongly identify with the comments that Secretary Adamson made,” he said.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop also weighed into the debate recently, saying that international students who came to Australia should abide by Australia’s laws and uphold freedom of speech.