The government of Australia has started looking deeply at the relationship between Australian universities and Confucius Institutes. Many of the universities have apparently entered into an agreement under which Beijing has the primary authority over many aspects of teaching.
Under Chinese control
The contracts have been signed between the universities and Hanban, an organization under the control of the Chinese education ministry and an important arm of the CCP’s “soft propaganda” program.. Hanban funds the Confucius Institutes worldwide. Griffith University, Charles Darwin University, La Trobe University, and the University of Queensland have each agreed to a clause that states that they must accept the assessment of Hanban when it comes to teaching quality at the centers.
Given the rise in concerns over the spread of Confucius Institutes, several Australian universities are apparently trying to renegotiate contracts. For instance, the University of Queensland first signed the contract with Hanban in 2009 and renewed it in 2015. The current contract expired in April and the university reportedly wants complete autonomy to be part of the new contract. Some believe that the universities might be breaching higher education standards by agreeing to Chinese supervision over teaching quality in Confucius Institutes.
“Even if they are not in breach of [Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency] standards, accepting foreign government assessments of Australian university teaching programs is hardly a good look… Australian universities enjoy freedom and autonomy because they are generally believed to be self-governing institutions not subject to foreign government interference. Anything that undermines that belief risks harming the sector as a whole,” John Fitzgerald, a professor at Swinburne University of Technology and a leading expert on Chinese politics, said to The Sydney Morning Herald.
After news of Beijing’s control over Confucius Institutes came to light, the attorney-general’s department started a probe to decide whether the institutes need to be registered as a source of foreign influence. Dan Tehan, the minister of education, has communicated to Universities Australia about the need for all colleges hosting foreign institutes to comply with the foreign influence transparency scheme.
“The attorney-general has asked his department to specifically examine the arrangements between Confucius Institutes and universities in order to ensure compliance with the [scheme]… The Australian government expects our universities to have robust mechanisms in place to ensure international education partnerships comply with Australian laws, education quality standards and academic freedoms,” he said in a statement (The Guardian).
Fight on campus
China has been flexing its muscles in Australian universities for quite some time. Recently, a fight broke out at the University of Queensland when a group of students started a protest in support of pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong. The university’s pro-China students gathered together and attacked the protestors, triggering a clash between the two sides. Only after police arrived were the students dispersed. Several of the neutral students were frightened at how much power Beijing was able to exert on an Australian campus.
“I think there were a lot of impassioned students feeling very strongly on both sides … to be honest at times it was quite scary… There was some violence that did occur… It became borderline nationalist with the playing of the national anthem and I think that’s when things started to become very inflamed… I think it is something that we’ve never really seen before at UQ, this degree of nationalism, and I think there was a bit of concern from the Chinese students and why they were allowed… I think we’re in some unprecedented times, to be honest,” Georgia Milroy, Student Union president, said to ABC News.
After the clash, Beijing made a public statement in support of the pro-China students. Xu Jie, the Chinese Consul-General in Brisbane, praised the students for confronting “anti-China separatists” in Australian campuses.