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University research to be protected under Australia’s foreign influence legislation

Research students still have academic freedom in Australia due to foreign influence legislation amendments. Source: Shutterstock

The Australian government has committed to safeguarding academic research in the new foreign influence legislation which aims to protect Australia’s national security from overseas investors and influencers.

Researchers, including research students and those pursuing a PhD, risked facing jail time for receiving information that could jeopardise Australia’s national security, including any global research partnerships with a policy-focus, under the original proposal.

Following concerns from Universities Australia, academics and Australian diplomats regarding the effect this would have on academic freedom, the government agreed to amend the Bill.

It is not yet clear what the changes will entail, “but the Government has listened attentively and looks set to address the university sector’s main concerns,” Universities Australia’s Chief Executive Designate Catriona Jackson said, according to a media release.  

“Universities Australia will work through the details of the amendments with the Government over the coming week, but there are encouraging signs the vast majority of university activity would not be included in the scheme,” she added.

The originally proposed legislation – which has raised tensions with China for blocking perceived attempts to infiltrate Australia – risked losing its position as the world’s third most popular study abroad destination, with 547 students currently studying for a Master’s by research and 4,557 students partaking in a research PhD, according to statistics released by Australia’s Department of Education and Training.

The number of international research students choosing Australia could have been severely impacted by the original foreign influence legislation, as the scope of research within Australian institutions was at risk.

“It’s vital for Australia’s strategic interests that our university sector can continue its successful global outreach and research partnerships,” Jackson said in a media release objecting the Bill.

“Australian universities respect the need for national security, but we must make sure that we get such legislation right.”

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