Australian universities worked with the government to draft guidelines to deal with foreign interference. What could the U.S. learn?

Combating Foreign Influence

In spring 2016, the University of New South Wales, a top Australian institution, signed an agreement with China’s Ministry of Science to conduct and commercialize joint research projects. The signing ceremony was held in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and then-Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull looking on.

Just three years later, UNSW and its fellow Australian universities sat down with the Australian government to hammer out a set of guidelines meant to counter foreign, aka Chinese, influence in higher education.

It can be easy to see the whiplash-fast speed with which China went from valued collaborator to suspicious competitor as distinctly American. But it’s not. British lawmakers have warned about Chinese meddling. On Canadian campuses, nationalistic students have tried to shout down speakers with whom they differ.

It’s the same in Australia, where fights have broken out between mainland Chinese students and those who support the protests in Hong Kong. A massive data breach this spring at Australian National University has been tied to Chinese hackers.

If anything, in Australia, the issues are more pressing. A quarter of all students at Australian universities are from overseas, and 10 percent are Chinese. At the University of Sydney, Chinese students account for a fifth of revenues. Located in a part of the world in which China is the dominant power, Chinese universities and companies are a critical partner for Australian researchers, as the pomp of the Great Hall signing illustrates.

American universities can look to Australia not simply to commiserate about shared problems but for lessons about potential solutions. Here in the U.S., I’ve repeatedly heard from colleges about their frustration that federal officials sound the alarm about higher education’s vulnerabilities, yet offer little in the way of concrete guidance. In Australia, the government also raised concerns. But then officials sat down with university representatives and, in just two short months, worked to producte a concrete set of guidelines.

The guidance, drafted by four working groups, is meant to give Australian institutions practical tools to combat overseas interference in research, protect students, and maintain autonomy. It was informed by a shared set of principles: Security must safeguard academic freedom, values, and research collaboration; international partnerships must be mindful of national interest; and security is a collective responsibility with individual accountability.

While the guidelines are not prescriptive, they offer up some best practices, such as appointing a chief safety and security officer, establishing clear mechanisms for staff and students to report foreign interference, and providing targeted training for people on the front lines of international academic relationships.

I spoke last week with Darren Goodsir, chief communications officer at UNSW, who sat on one of the working groups. He said the process gave higher education “more situational awareness and context” about potential threats. “The government was driving [the working group],” he told me, “but universities are increasingly aware of the geopolitical dynamic.” 

In fact, Goodsir said he’d like to see the task force remain in place, as a forum to discuss how to balance potential risks with universities’ openness.

In the U.S., lawmakers have proposed an interagency working group to tackle academic espionage. During a Senate hearing last week, federal officials said they are working to standardize approaches for reporting information on international collaborations that they hope will allow them to spot potential vulnerabilities. Both could help guide universities as they seek to recalibrate their international relationships in the face of security warnings. But Australia could offer a model for healthy cooperation between academe and government.

Tell me what you think. You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

NYU-Shanghai Adds Patriotic Education

Chinese students at NYU-Shanghai will now be required to complete a “patriotic education” course. Such civic education courses, which emphasize patriotism and Communist Party ideology, have long been mandatory in Chinese universities and on some foreign branch campuses. The first five classes at NYU-Shanghai did not take the pro-government course, but the requirement was quietly added this past winter, Vice News reported.

The course was held over the winter break and non-Chinese students did not have to enroll.  A NYU-Shanghai spokesperson told Vice that the course is “a Chinese government requirement of Chinese citizens attending college” and was not taught by university faculty.

Online, the news was received as yet more evidence of the increasingly restrictive environment for academic freedom in China and of the line western universities have to toe when operating campuses in authoritative nations: “I suppose that’s the pound of flesh you gotta pay and hand in your pocket you gotta tolerate if you wanna have a Chinese campus,” said one tweet.

But this thread argues that adding the course was a necessary concession for NYU to remain in China and offer a recognized Chinese degree.

Visa Changes In the Offing?

The U.S. government is again signaling that it could make changes to Optional Practical Training and other student-visa regulations. In its semi-annual regulatory agenda, published last week, the Trump administration laid out several possible modifications to student visas, including:

  • Reset the clock for when to begin calculating that a student or a scholar is unlawfully present in the United States. The administration had earlier tried to make a similar change via a policy memo, but it was blocked in federal court after colleges and international students filed suit arguing that students could be barred from the U.S. for relatively minor infractions. By going through formal rulemaking, the government could be trying to avoid challenges on procedural grounds. 
  • Establish a maximum time international students can stay in the United States. Currently, students are permitted to remain in the country until they have completed their studies.
  • Put in place eligibility checks for college officials who maintain the student-visa database.
  • Amend OPT, the work program for recent international graduates. What does the administration have in mind? Unclear. The OPT agenda item (inscrutably) states that the government would “amend existing regulations and revise the practical training options available to nonimmigrant students on F and M visas.”

Inclusion on the administration’s list of possible new rules is no guarantee of action, of course – OPT has been included on the last three regulatory agendas. But – broken record here – the threat of fresh restrictions can often ricochet among potential students and can have nearly as powerful an impact as actual changes. As always, NAFSA has a great backgrounder for those seeking more analysis.

Around the Globe

Scholars at Risk catalogued more than 300 attacks, some violent, on students and scholars around the globe in the past year.

A small group of protesters remained barricaded in a Hong Kong university following violent clashes with police.

A number of American colleges, including the University of Notre Dame, called off study-abroad programs there.

An American and an Australian professor held hostage in Afghanistan were freed in a prisoner swap with the Taliban.

China overtook Britain in the number of highly cited researchers, but the United States remains atop the Web of Science Group’s annual list of academics with the most-cited publications.

Thousands of faculty and staff members in the UK are preparing for a weeklong strike over pay, pensions, and work conditions.

A Kansas researcher facing U.S. government charges denies that he worked for a Chinese university.

Eight colleges were recognized by NAFSA for excellence and innovation in international education. During International Education Week, the Forum on Education Abroad also handed out several awards to outstanding study-abroad programs.

A Chinese spy who defected to Australia claims he was part of an intelligence operation that infiltrated Hong Kong universities.Iran seized more than 50 students at Tehran University as the government sought to silence protests.

Iran seized more than 50 students at Tehran University as the government sought to silence protests.

Two British universities are reconsidering their ties to Prince Andrew following a television interview on his relationship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and allegations of sex abuse.

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And finally….

The results of a survey by World Education Services offers a trove of new data about international students’ experiences in the United States. Here’s a piece of good news: Nine out of 10 students say they are satisfied with their American education. Yet, WES found that students struggle to strike friendships with Americans and establish social networks. Just half of Chinese students, for example, report strong social bonds on campus.

This is a persistent problem, but does it have to be intractable? I’d like to highlight what different campuses are doing to tackle the challenge of social integration. Email me at, and I could feature your institution in future coverage.

‘Til next week – Karin

A freelance journalist and expert on global issues in higher ed, Karin has been writing for more than a decade about the changing relationship between American colleges and the world.