Security clearance overhaul needed to build Australia’s high-tech workforce

The Australian government recently published its updated guidelines to counter foreign interference  in the university sector, declaring that ‘All universities are subject to foreign interference risks’. And last month, at ASPI’s inaugural Sydney Dialogue, Prime Minister Scott Morrison released the government’s Blueprint for critical technologies, which identified a number of technology categories deemed essential to Australia’s long-term prosperity and security, including biotechnology, artificial intelligence, robotics and quantum computing.

Taken together, these documents tell us that Australia’s technology-driven future will be heavily reliant on a specialist research workforce that our national security leaders believe is being aggressively targeted by foreign powers.

Rapid and transformative technological innovation generated by non-government institutions is now at the core of Australia’s domestic economic vision and is also central to how Western nations intend to remain the dominant grouping in world affairs, as the tech-centric AUKUS and Quad partnerships show.

However, Australia’s ability to realise its technological potential and contribute to Western tech dominance relies on having a research and corporate sector resilient to foreign interference—with intellectual property theft and coercion by the Chinese Communist Party the most pressing threats. To achieve this resilience, more needs to be done to help non-government organisations become self-reliant in their security with trusted workforces that are resistant to interference.

In line with this, the government should consider taking two measures to improve the capacity of universities, businesses and other non-government organisations to build trusted workforces and work environments in which exposure to foreign interference is made transparent and can be mitigated.

The first measure is to establish a national security vetting framework for the non-government sector under which nationally significant research institutions and businesses pay to have staff appropriately vetted. The aim would be not just to protect sensitive work with government, as is currently the case, but to provide assurance to the institution or business that its intellectual property and corporate integrity are being protected.

At the moment, businesses looking to work on sensitive government projects often have to obtain standardised security clearances for their staff. But the need for security vetting now arguably extends well beyond government contracts. Even if they’re not working on government projects, more and more businesses and their investors want to be assured that they have hardened themselves to the risk of foreign interference and corporate espionage. Yet the options available to Australian organisations to conduct background checks on their staff in an effective, ethical way are limited and inconsistent.

Establishing such a clearance capability alongside the public service’s existing security vetting system would be an enormous task for already strained government vetting agencies. Currently, processing high-level security clearances can take months or years and can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

That brings us to the second measure, which will support the establishment of this new security vetting capability for the non-government sector.

The government should establish a scheme to allow relevant students to apply for security clearances at the beginning of their degrees and to transfer the costs onto the low-interest HECS-style loans most Australians use to cover their university or vocational education fees.

This will mean essential technology specialists won’t have to wait for lengthy clearance processes before they can start their jobs.

As the Blueprint for critical technologies indicates, there’s an obvious range of tertiary and vocational programs that will be vital to achieving the national uplift required for Australia to meet its economic potential and security needs.

Australia’s burgeoning digital businesses demand new technology workforces to seize the opportunities of AI and new quantum information processing. So too will the AUKUS pact and Australia’s technology partnerships with the Quad countries demand an influx of new high-tech specialists into Australia’s growing national security community.

Allowing vocational, undergraduate and postgraduate students in these key areas to commence security vetting while studying will mean they can be cleared and job ready at the conclusion of their degrees. Importantly, such a scheme should involve agencies reimbursing students for their clearance upon commencing employment, since it’s a cost these agencies already cover.

A new HECS-funded vetting capability would also allow private businesses and universities themselves to provide security clearance scholarships and create their own pipeline of vetted research and professional staff.

Importantly, the influx of cash from HECS-funded vetting applications could be used to fund desperately needed innovation in Australia’s approach to security vetting; the adoption of new open-source intelligence methodologies is an obvious area for improvement. An even healthier innovation fund could be generated if universities and relevant businesses can opt to pay more for faster clearances.

Establishing a new security vetting capability for the non-government sector is also urgently required to address a perverse shadow employment market that has arisen out of the current model. Currently, Australians with top secret clearances can command rapid promotions or high salaries for jobs that they’re not strictly the most qualified candidate for but which they get because of the prohibitively long time it takes to clear a new employee from scratch. An additional avenue for building security-cleared workforces within universities and businesses will help alleviate this problem and mobilise Australia’s world-class researchers to the most pressing economic and security challenges we will face.