Australian universities hosting Chinese government-funded education centres have signed agreements explicitly stating they must comply with Beijing’s decision-making authority over teaching at the facilities.
Eleven previously undisclosed contracts between the universities and Hanban, the Beijing-based headquarters that funds and oversees the global network of Confucius Institutes, shed light on the different approaches taken to safeguarding academic freedom and autonomy under the lucrative arrangements.
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 wording, which does not place any qualifications on Hanban’s overriding authority, appears to hand Beijing more control than versions signed by other universities and will fan concerns about the institutes, which are a key plank of the Chinese Communist Party’s global soft power effort.
The institutes are joint ventures between the host university, a partner university in China, and Hanban, an agency under China’s education ministry which supplies funding, staff and resources. Confucius Institutes provide teaching on Chinese culture and language and some hold public events on political, social and economic issues.
Universities worldwide have embraced the centres but critics are concerned about censorship of sensitive political issues and centres operating as platforms for propaganda and undue influence on campus and beyond.
A spokeswoman for UQ said the contract — first signed in 2009 and renewed in 2014 — had expired in April and the university was negotiating changes in a new version, with explicit commitments to university autonomy over all content, standards, admissions, examinations, staffing and academic freedom “in connection with the Confucius Institute and all courses and projects it offers”.
“The draft specifies that the agreement does not limit UQ’s autonomy in any way,” the spokeswoman said.
UQ students occupied their Confucius Institute on Wednesday, protesting the Chinese government’s conduct and questioning the university’s ties to Beijing. In tense and sometimes violent scenes, protestors clashed with pro-China students.
A spokesman for Griffith University said the Confucius Institute was not involved in delivering formal academic qualifications and was instead “focused on offering cultural and language programs for our local communities” under the direction of a senior university academic.
A spokeswoman for La Trobe said its institute “does not engage in management of any award courses of the university or in other academic endeavours of the university and so there is no impact on academic autonomy and independence”.
A spokeswoman for CDU said the university was satisfied with its institute, which “does not have a direct role in any academic certification” awarded by the university.
John Fitzgerald, an emeritus professor at Swinburne University of Technology and leading expert on Chinese politics, said the clauses on teaching quality assessments could place universities in breach of higher education standards if they related to the awarding of degrees.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
Amid the ongoing concerns about implications for academic freedom, deals signed by other Australian institutions appear more assertive about their rights.
Victoria University’s agreement says the institute must accept Hanban’s assessment on teaching quality but adds that, “if the teaching relates to a Victoria University award course, the teaching quality must also satisfy Victoria University’s requirements”.
The University of Melbourne’s agreement states only that its facility “must take into consideration any assessment by the Headquarters on the teaching quality at the Institute”.
The University of Sydney’s agreement stipulates it must accept Hanban’s assessment of the quality of teaching “unless it is inconsistent with the university’s academic rules, policies and procedures”.
The University of Western Australia’s states that it has “the right to determine the content of the curriculum and the manner of instruction for all programs administered by the Institute at UWA” while Hanban “ultimately has the right to determine the programs to which it provides funding”.
The contracts signed by QUT and the University of Newcastle similarly state the universities’ control over content and instruction while Hanban has discretion over its funding.
UNSW’s agreement is unique in that it does not have a relevant clause clarifying where authority sits.
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age obtained the contracts governing eleven of the 13 institutes at Australian universities.
RMIT and the University of Adelaide declined to provide the agreements in response to multiple requests.
A spokeswoman for RMIT said the university considers agreements with third parties to be confidential and a spokesman for the University of Adelaide cited the fact the contract was a legal document.
The institutes have loomed as a focus for the foreign influence transparency scheme introduced by the Coalition government. While the universities have been warned the facilities might be subject to the scheme, they have so far declined to register them.
By Fergus Hunter