UNIVERSITIES have been advised to diversify their contingents of international students and focus on recruitment from ally nations.
The Cyber Security Cooperative Research Centre (CSCRC) made the recommendation in its submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security's inquiry into national security risks affecting the Australian higher education and research sector.
The CSCRC said the sector was a "soft target" for foreign espionage and interference.
"Little thought or attention has been given to fostering diversity concerning sources of international funding and international students, which has, in many ways, left higher education and research institutions in a precarious position," the CSCRC said.
"While national security risks stem from a variety of sources, infiltration and interference through the higher education and research sectors has the potential to be especially insidious through its subtlety."
It said there was an over-reliance on full-fee paying international students.
It said the vast majority came from China, followed by India.
"There is a need to diversify Australia's intake of international students, with a focus on students from nations socially, politically and strategically aligned to ours. This will only serve to strengthen Australia's relationships with its key allies and drive mutually beneficial partnerships," it said.
The CSCRC said there was an over-reliance on international students for research and development work too and "where research does have the potential to leverage Australia's capability and has national security implications, strong protections must be established".
It said the sector must prioritise cyber security and data and IP protection.
"Espionage and foreign interference will remain serious threats to Australia's national security and, while there is no silver bullet solution, risk management and mitigation strategies can help bolster the nation's higher education and research sectors against intrusions."
IN OTHER NEWS:
University of Newcastle (UON) Deputy Vice Chancellor, Global Engagement and Partnerships, Professor Tony Travaglione, said UON recruits international student candidates from across the globe.
"Our Looking Ahead 2020-2025 Strategic Plan has an Asia-Pacific focus, yet we are committed to providing a world-class high education for eligible students from diverse backgrounds," he said.
"This includes Australia, from our neighbouring countries and regions, and from further afield."
He said UON had governance processes to ensure academic and research standards were upheld.
"Our office of Research Integrity and Compliance facilitates thorough due diligence checks on all collaborations, partnerships, projects, irrespective of who they are with."
He said UON played a central role in sector efforts to counter interference risks.
Vice Chancellor Alex Zelinsky is a member on the Federal Government's Universities Foreign Interference Taskforce.
UON lodged a submission with the Australian Technology Network of Universities.
"Best practice is achieved where risk-based, targeted and proportionate protection is implemented and to date the best way to achieve this has been through consultation and co-design between the government and the sector," it said.
"To provide timely and effective responses to emerging threats, two-way data and information sharing between the government and trusted partners should be considered."
UON and the University of Technology Sydney now share a Chief Information Security Officer.