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Universities baulk at foreign deal laws

Universities say they should be exempt from proposed new federal laws which would limit collaboration with foreign governments or entities.

Draft laws were introduced in September enabling the foreign minister to assess arrangements between state, territory or local governments or public universities and foreign governments to determine whether they are inconsistent with, or adversely affect, Australia’s foreign policy.

The laws were sparked by concerns over the transparency of a number of state and territory deals including Victoria’s Belt and Road Initiative agreement with China.

The federal government argues most arrangements – which range from investment deals to cultural or education exchanges – are useful, productive and non-controversial.

But it is concerned there is no requirement to consult with the Commonwealth when entering into arrangements with foreign governments and some deals could undermine Australia’s foreign policy objectives.

The retrospective laws will allow for decisions to be enforced through court injunctions, give the foreign minister broad rule-making powers and set up a public register of foreign arrangements.

At a parliamentary inquiry hearing into the bill on Tuesday, university sector representatives will argue for an exemption.

UNSW Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor George Williams, says the bill should not be retrospective and contains serious flaws in its application to universities, including extending to “every conceivable form of collaboration”.

The administrative burden would be unmanageable, with thousands of agreements to review emanating from UNSW alone, he says in a written submission.

It would expose universities to high levels of legal risk, including the possibility of being forced to compensate foreign entities, and delay or deter valuable research.

“The bill will undermine the negotiating position and international competitiveness of Australian universities to the national detriment,” he says.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said in its submission it was important for universities to be covered by the laws.

“Publicly funded Australian universities often have a significant international posture, and may enter into arrangements with foreign entities that have the potential to affect Australia’s foreign relations and foreign policy,” it says.

The department said the obligations on universities would be limited.

“Only arrangements with a foreign government or a foreign university that lacks institutional autonomy will be in scope. Such arrangements will only need to be notified, rather than go through the approval process.”

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