Preparing Australian universities for AUKUS

The second anniversary of the unveiling of AUKUS is fast approaching. Most coverage of AUKUS has focused on its first pillar, which will see Australia join the ‘nuclear club’ by receiving 11 nuclear-powered, conventionally armed submarines (SSNs). But less attention has been devoted to the information-sharing, industry ties and advanced technologies that make up AUKUS Pillar 2.

Pillar 2 technologies will include undersea robotics, quantum computing, advanced cybersecurity and electronic warfare capabilities, hypersonic weapons and mechanisms for defending against hypersonic weapons.

Although Australia’s defence industry has been generally optimistic about AUKUS, higher education institutions have expressed concern about how Australia will build the skills these technologies require. Some experts suggest that nearly 200 PhD-qualified experts will be needed to support the SSNs alone. The Pillar 2 list of technologies will likely require a similar number, given that Australia lacks the sovereign capability to design and develop almost all of them.

Australia doesn’t have a robust pipeline of candidates ready to study Pillar 2 technologies. It probably can’t even supply enough graduates to support Pillar 1. So where will Australia find these students? Most likely from overseas.

But that reliance comes with risks. Australia’s University Foreign Interference Taskforce has guidelines to counter foreign interference in higher education. Universities are advised to conduct due-diligence assessments ‘on partners and personnel’ as well as assess ‘the potential use and risk of technology and/or research’. But neither universities nor researchers have the resources and expertise to properly vet future students for risks to national security.

On top of that, those with information relevant to decision-making when undertaking this kind of vetting—such as in intelligence and law enforcement—are often bound by strict secrecy laws and don’t inform universities of risks, because doing so could compromise ongoing security or intelligence investigations.

This can lead to bizarre standoffs, like the case of doctoral student Li Jianjun. In 2020, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation cancelled his student visa for association with an alleged Chinese plot to influence the New South Wales parliament through upper-house member Shaoquett Moselmane. Western Sydney University (from which Li had graduated) supplied a character reference for his appeal against the cancellation but wasn’t aware of the WeChat messages that allegedly formed the basis for his visa cancellation.

While universities could request that a wider range of students obtain government security clearances, that would create challenges. Visa delays for security checks have already led to many students abandoning Australia in favour of the US or EU. Defence is struggling to process clearances quickly, and earlier this year it was stripped of responsibility for conducting the highest level of clearances—known as ‘positive vetting’—which was transferred to ASIO.

A program exists to accredit information technology systems to handle defence-sensitive information outside Defence’s infrastructure—the Defence Industry Security Program. The program is important for safeguarding data in institutions like universities and also provides a pathway to obtaining security clearances for staff and students. But for institutions as large and diverse as universities, it also creates a major administrative burden.

Other risks around student research also need managing. Universities will soon start to receive access to classified information under the AUKUS agreement, which may allow malicious actors to take advantage of lax cybersecurity. Opposition Home Affairs spokesman James Paterson has argued that teaching sensitive cybersecurity techniques to foreign nationals is contrary to Australia’s interests. Research students may also require resources for their research—such as critical minerals or semiconductors—that require rationing across Australia’s defence technology sector.

Existing mitigation measures are complex, unwieldy and limited by a lack of resources, expertise and time. For instance, universities must comply with Australian export rules when dealing with items with a potential military use. While there’s strong coordination between those issuing licences and universities in applying these controls, the list of controlled items and associated rules are complex and the system isn’t fit for purpose in dealing with novel technologies, such as those listed in the AUKUS agreement.

The publication of information and research about certain dual-use and military technologies requires government licensing under the Defence Trade Controls Act, but the scheme usually relies on self-reporting and self-assessment of projects. If a research project contains US military technology—which is one focus of AUKUS—the additional US control requirements are particularly onerous and come with the possibility of US criminal sanction if breached. As it stands, these rules significantly burden those researching this type of technology.

National security risks also need to be balanced with encouraging innovation. According to a 2020 report, Australian universities contribute up to 87% of the country’s ‘discovery’ or basic research and 45% of applied research—which ASPI has described as ‘an essential and complementary element and force multiplier to our sovereign defence industry and capability edge’.

Restricting this type of research may do more harm than good.

There also should not be interference with academic freedom by subjecting research to a requirement for agency review or preventing publication. Academics must be allowed to explore and advocate new ideas, including unpopular ones, without fear of losing their jobs. Limiting who academics can work with has costs, too. It would damage the institutional autonomy of universities. After all, the imposition of security credentials and embedding of military staff in universities are things we criticise Australia’s autocratic adversaries for.

Finally, it’s important to avoid discrimination. If universities can’t undertake evidence-based screenings, nationality can easily become an unfair proxy for risk. In the US, a recent Supreme Court judgement overturned affirmative action, holding that it is lawful to discriminate in university admissions if there’s a national security requirement to do so. Extrapolating this kind of thinking to prevent foreign interference in universities could result in overly prescriptive and biased outcomes.

AUKUS is about more than just submarines. It’s a program designed to accelerate Australia’s technological development. That is likely to pose major challenges to this country, which doesn’t have sufficient robustness in its national security laws and policies to properly deal with them. Those laws and policies need to be updated to accommodate AUKUS, with appropriate deference to the principles of fairness and non-discrimination. They need to protect the academic freedom that makes sourcing the future AUKUS workforce from Australian universities so desirable in the first place. Without a comprehensive strategy for this, Australia will be far from be ready when its new submarines are due to hit the water.