A proposed inquiry by the security and intelligence committee follows a series of controversies over China’s clout on Australian campuses, ranging from hacks of university data to questionable financial donations and intimidation of Beijing’s critics.
Concerns have also been raised about the nature of research links between academics and scientists in the two countries.
Alan Tudge, the minister for population and cities, told Sky News the mooted inquiry was the latest government attempt to tackle spiralling foreign interference now at “levels not seen since World War II”.
The move comes after Canberra announced last week that it was seeking new powers to scrap deals between local authorities and foreign countries that threaten the national interest — sweeping powers that would extend to universities.
It also comes less than a year after Australia announced new guidelines for universities for research collaboration, cybersecurity, and international partnerships.
Tudge said the inquiry would “go further” than previous probes into alleged foreign interference.
“We need to be assured and the public need to be assured that there isn’t that foreign interference in our universities sector,” he said.
He did not say if the probe was aimed at China.
The Australian newspaper reported that Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton outlined the terms of reference for the inquiry in a letter Sunday to committee head Andrew Hastie, a government parliamentarian and outspoken China critic.
Advisors to Dutton did not respond to a request for comment.
The university guidelines announced in November push public institutions to enhance cybersecurity systems, undertake due diligence before signing partnerships with overseas organisations, and train staff to recognise foreign influence attempts.
Academics have been urged to be wary of sharing knowledge on sensitive topics and discern how joint research with international scholars could potentially be misused.
Schools and government officials also committed to more intensive consultation to protect Australia’s national interests.
Beijing has repeatedly denied interfering in Australian campus life.
China-Australia relations have reached a new ebb in recent months, with the two governments at loggerheads over trade and competing for influence in the Pacific.
Tensions spiked in April when Australia infuriated China by calling for an independent probe into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, which emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.
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