Government to assess regulation of Chinese influence at universities

The attorney-general’s department will probe whether Confucius Institutes at Australian universities require registration as a source of foreign influence after revelations about the extent of Chinese control of teaching standards.

On Thursday, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age reported that contracts signed by four universities state that they ‘‘must accept” the assessment of the Confucius Institute headquarters on the teaching quality at the centres.

The Confucius Institutes are joint ventures between the host university, a partner university in China, and Hanban, an agency under China’s education ministry which supplies funding, staff and resources.

In a statement, the education minister, Dan Tehan, said he had spoken to Universities Australia on Thursday to stress “the importance of all universities that host foreign institutes complying with the foreign influence transparency scheme”.

The scheme, created in the term of the last parliament, requires people and bodies acting on behalf of foreign governments and related entities – including lawful activities – to sign up to a public register.

Registrations have included the United States Studies Centre and the Perth US Asia Centre, but so far none of the 13 universities that host the China-funded Confucius Institute centres have registered.

On Thursday, the Universities Australia chief executive, Catriona Jackson, said universities were “looking carefully at their agreements with foreign entities to ensure they comply with the new laws”.

Tehan said he will meet vice chancellors in early August to discuss the issue and ensure Australian universities uphold institutional autonomy and control of curriculum and standards.

“The attorney-general’s department has already been undertaking inquiries with a number of universities over recent months to ascertain whether certain arrangements should be registered,” he said.

“The attorney-general has asked his department to specifically examine the arrangements between Confucius Institutes and universities in order to ensure compliance with the [scheme].”

“The Australian government expects our universities to have robust mechanisms in place to ensure international education partnerships comply with Australian laws, education quality standards and academic freedoms.”

Jackson noted that although the FITS came into effect on 10 December, amendments in April had clarified the scope of communications activities covered by the scheme. Communications activities are registrable under the scheme only if undertaken for the purpose of political or governmental influence.

Jackson said the university sector had “worked constructively with the attorney-general and his department as the government crafted and refined this legislation last year”.

“Australia’s universities also strongly uphold their institutional autonomy and control of curriculum and standards.”

Three of the universities cited in the original report – Griffith University, La Trobe and Charles Darwin University – reportedly defended the arrangements by noting that Confucius Institute centres do not have a direct role in any academic certification of the universities, but rather provide cultural and language programs.

The fourth university, University of Queensland, reportedly said its agreement expired in April and the university is negotiating changes with explicit commitments to university autonomy over all content, standards, admissions, examinations, staffing and academic freedom “in connection with the Confucius Institute and all courses and projects it offers”.


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