Australian universities must improve their cybersecurity to limit foreign interference on campuses.

The government has collaborated with the university sector to develop guidelines for countering what the head of ASIO calls an ‘unprecedented level’ of foreign interference in Australia.

Minister for Education, Dan Tehan, thanked the universities for their cooperation.

“Working with universities and national security agencies, we have taken action to ensure universities understand the risks and know what steps to take to protect themselves.”

The guidelines focus on five themes:

  • Cybersecurity
  • Knowledge sharing
  • Communication and education
  • Due diligence
  • Governance and risk frameworks

As well as developing their own tailored cybersecurity strategies, universities are encouraged to share cyber intelligence with governments and each other in order to “build a common picture of threats across the sector”.

Creating a “strong cyber security culture” is mentioned as a way of helping students, staff, and researchers become more cyber-safe.

Universities will also need to work on threat-modelling with guidance from the Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC) and other security agencies.

This new set of strategies follows a major data breach at the Australian National University that was revealed in June.

Nineteen years’ worth of personal information was vulnerable during that breach.

Universities have also come under scrutiny for the connections some researchers have had with foreign government projects.

In July it was revealed that two Australian universities were implicated in research directly related to Chinese mass surveillance projects.

Professor Deborah Terry, chair of advocacy group Univerisities Australia, said it is important for universities to remain open to international research.

“The global collaboration of our universities is a powerful national asset – putting us at the forefront of research breakthroughs and knowledge advances that deliver benefits to Australia,” Professor Terry said.

“It is in Australia's interests to safeguard that openness as we navigate in an ever more complex world.”

She added that the set of guidelines on foreign interference aims at improving the posture of the university sector overall.

“The intent is not to add to the regulatory or compliance burden for universities – but to enhance resources and intelligence to further safeguard our people, research and technology,” Professor Terry said.

“University autonomy remains a foundational principle of Australia’s university system, and this partnership approach respects this central tenet of universities whilst managing risk.”