Are intelligence services spying on Australian academics?

Fresh revelations from Senate Estimates that the Australian Research Council (ARC) has been collecting ‘sensitivity files’ on Australian academics raise important concerns about academic freedom and integrity in Australia, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) has warned.

“If the intelligence community is passing on information to the ARC which results in the axing of research projects without any transparency or clear process, then this could set a dangerous precedent for academic freedom and intellectual inquiry in Australia,” NTEU National President Dr Alison Barnes said today.

“We are concerned that this could have a chilling effect on research integrity and academic freedom in Australia and that’s why we are seeking more information.”

The NTEU will write to the ARC to seek more information on these concerning revelations, including asking what kind of information is being collected and what transparency is in place around this process to ensure there is natural and procedural fairness, such as what grounds are there for a researcher to seek to view their ‘files’ and challenge the accuracy of the information.

Answers will also be sought to determine how universities are being informed of the ARC’s interactions with security agencies around research grants processes, and whether ARC grants have been rejected or cancelled as a result of information on researchers that was collected by the ARC with assistance from security agencies.

Dr Barnes said that these revelations are particularly concerning for academic freedom given the recent passage of the Australia’s Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) Bill 2020, which gives the Foreign Minister powers to unilaterally terminate relationships between a university and any foreign entity if the Minister deems that the relationship may “adversely affect Australia’s foreign relations or are inconsistent with our foreign policy.”

There is no appeal process or right of reply once a decision is made by the Minister.

“These developments could create an environment of self-censorship and fear for researchers under this government, and the loss of academic freedom that this entails.”

“The NTEU will raise our concerns and seek explanations from the ARC about these practices. As the responsible funding body, the ARC should assess research funding applications based on academic merit, and free from the undue influence of governments.”

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