ANU head warns against generalising Chinese students

The head of the Australian National University has urged Australians to avoid the "flat-out wrong idea" that all Chinese students are spies or incapable of critical thinking.

Speaking at a China Matters meeting, Brian Schmidt said Chinese students who attended the ANU - about one in five enrolments - were "some of the very best and brightest", "open to new ideas" and "extraordinary, ambitious and bold".

But the Nobel Laureate also acknowledged increasing scrutiny of China's influence on the nation's universities, warning any degradation of institutions' commitment to rigorous inquiry would badly impact on Australia's academic standing internationally.

The ANU had a responsibility to recognise and address the challenges of allegations of spying and monitoring of students by embassy officials and other students, Professor Schmidt said.

"Whatever measures we take, at the heart of our response will always be a commitment to academic freedom, and making sure our students are exposed to new ways of thinking," he said.

"We understand and respect the different academic traditions around the world, and that our increasingly global universities need to support students they admit who are based in those alternative traditions.

"But at the core of ANU's success is one key principle: that everyone is free to challenge ideas, to counter received wisdom, and has the ability to feel comfortable being challenged."

The Chinese government released a directive in January last year aimed at ensuring all Chinese students - including those studying overseas - "always follow the party".

The "patriotic education" approach specified that a network of embassies and overseas Chinese student groups were to be used as propaganda agents to promote positive messages on the "motherland".

The ANU has been home to some related controversies. Last year, outlets including student newspaper Woroni reported on the alleged intimidation of an on-campus pharmacist whose employer stocked a newspaper with articles critical of the Chinese Communist Party.

As well, an ultra-nationalistic video warning against US-led "foreign hostile forces" was traced to an ANU PhD student.

Earlier this year, Forbes reported Sally Sargeson from the ANU's Senior Fellow at the College of Asia and the Pacific had introduced anonymous online forums to help Chinese students feel more free to state their opinions.

She told the publication all Chinese students she had spoken to knew they were being monitored and had "[adjusted] their speech so they will not get into trouble".

High-profile bureaucrats and ministers have recently turned their attention to on-campus interference by foreign powers. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop this week urged international students to respect Australia's commitment to freedom of speech, according to the ABC.

China Matters, an independent think-tank, has acknowledged the Chinese government's increasing efforts to influence academic discourse, pointing to the growing number of Chinese students in Australia as a contributor.

The body's Bates Gill and Linda Jakobson have recommended that universities engage with embassy officials and that Group of 8 leaders - which would include Professor Schmidt - meet with the Education Department and peak bodies to discuss cooperation on the challenges of Chinese students.

"The Go8 should explore ways to enforce a more binding code of conduct than the one currently in use, which expects students to 'act consistently' with values such as intellectual freedom and critical, open enquiry," the briefing said.

As well, China Matters acknowledged the higher education sector's reliance on international students, who pay higher fees than their domestic counterparts.

At the ANU, international student revenue grew from $142 million in 2015 to $188 million in 2016. The university quietly introduced a policy in 2015 aimed at diversifying its student base in an attempt to lower its share of Chinese enrolments.

The university did not send Fairfax Media policies related to potential Chinese influence on campus upon request.

This story ANU head warns against generalising Chinese students first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.