“I spoke to Universities Australia this morning and stressed the importance of all universities that host foreign institutes complying with the foreign influence transparency scheme,” he said.
“I will be meeting with vice chancellors in early August and have placed this issue on the agenda for that meeting.”
Mr Tehan said the Attorney-General’s Department had been scrutinising some institutions to see if they should be registering arrangements with the recently activated foreign influence regime.
“The Attorney-General has asked his department to specifically examine the arrangements between Confucius Institutes and universities in order to ensure compliance with the foreign influence transparency scheme,” he said.
Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said the higher education institutions “strongly uphold their institutional autonomy and control of curriculum and standards”.
Ms Jackson said the sector had worked constructively with the government on the foreign influence laws.
“In line with Australian government policy, our nation’s universities are looking carefully at their agreements with foreign entities to ensure they comply with the new laws,” she said.
She said amendments to the legislation had clarified the scope of “communications activities for the purpose of political or government influence” covered by the scheme. The changes have put universities at ease about their obligations with regard to Confucius Institutes.
None of the 13 universities that host the China-funded centres have so far registered the arrangements under the foreign influence transparency scheme, rebuffing signals from the government that they may subject to it.
The scheme is intended to capture the lawful activities of entities that seek to exert influence in Australia on behalf of foreign powers.
The eleven contracts published for the first time on Thursday shed light on differing approaches universities have taken to the contracts with Hanban, the Beijing-based headquarters that provides funding, staff and resources for the institutes.
Agreements signed by the University of Queensland, Griffith University, La Trobe University and Charles Darwin University state in identical clauses that they “must accept the assessment of the [Confucius Institute] Headquarters on the teaching quality” at their centres.
The universities defended the arrangements, saying the institutes were not involved in the awarding of formal qualifications. UQ is negotiating new language on academic autonomy in a revised version of their agreement after it expired in April.
Agreements signed by other universities appear to be more assertive about their rights. Two universities, RMIT and the University of Adelaide, declined to release their contracts, citing their confidential and legal nature.
Greens education spokeswoman Mehreen Faruqi said the agreements were “completely outrageous” and said money was having a “corrosive influence” at universities.
“Minister Tehan must launch an urgent investigation into whether the contracts with Confucius Institutes are undermining the independence of our universities,” she said.
Elaine Pearson, the Australia director of Human Rights Watch, said the revelations should cause universities to have a “long hard think” about whether it was appropriate for them to have Confucius Institutes.
“That a foreign authoritarian government is able to dictate to some universities the terms [regarding] teaching quality is completely unacceptable,” she said.
“These latest revelations reinforce the need for Australian universities to reject Confucius Institutes entirely. The institutes are fundamentally incompatible with a robust commitment to academic freedom.”
Fergus Hunter is an education and communications reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.