Australian universities may allow students to submit written assignments under pseudonyms and in hard copy amid growing concerns about foreign government-linked harassment over politically sensitive topics.
The Guardian has learned university leaders are considering a range of options to protect academic freedom, including making it a disciplinary offence if students record some classes or share them with outside groups.
New research shows students have experienced harassment and intimidation for criticising the Chinese Communist party or expressing support for democracy in Hong Kong or mainland China.
Academics in Australia have also reported experiencing pressure and threats over the content of teaching and tutorial discussions related to China, according to a 102-page report published by Human Rights Watch on Wednesday.
The chief executive of Universities Australia, Catriona Jackson, confirmed universities were considering best-practice examples from overseas, including at Oxford in the UK and Princeton in the US.
“At Princeton University, students use code instead of names on their work to protect their identity,” Jackson said.
“At Oxford University, students specialising in the study of China are asked to submit papers anonymously. Harvard Business School allows students to excuse themselves from discussing politically sensitive topics if they feel they are concerned about the risks.”
Jackson said universities were “utterly committed to academic freedom, both in the classroom and more broadly on campus”, and urged students to report any issues.
“This is a global problem, and our universities are looking closely at what their overseas counterparts are doing,” she said.
As the Guardian has previously reported, the Oxford University measures were intended to protect students studying China from the possibility of retribution under the sweeping new security law in Hong Kong.
That law gave Chinese authorities the power to arrest non-residents for actions or comments made outside Hong Kong. People with personal and family connections to Hong Kong and mainland China were considered particularly vulnerable.
In addition to asking students to submit some papers anonymously, Oxford replaced some group tutorials with one-on-one meetings, and warned students against recording classes or sharing them.
With many classes moved online during the pandemic, and some students joining remotely from Hong Kong and mainland China, Princeton was concerned that the use of participants’ real names might affect their ability to express themselves freely.
Some university administrators in Australia have already acted on concerns about the Hong Kong national security law.
La Trobe University said it had conducted an audit of students who could be affected by the law and who were enrolled in subjects that covered material likely to be considered politically sensitive.
“This two-step approach identified one student who could have been affected and we worked at departmental level to advise the student and ensure the necessary protection was afforded,” the university told Human Rights Watch.
Australian university leaders are working with security agencies and government departments to update guidelines to guard against foreign interference in the sector, with a new version expected to be finalised in the coming months.
Jackson said the “refresh” of the guidelines was likely to “strengthen deterrence to this kind of coercion”.
The updated guidelines are unlikely to be announced until after the parliament’s intelligence committee completes its own inquiry into security risks in higher education.
The chair of the intelligence committee, Liberal senator James Paterson, has hinted universities may face “tougher legal obligations” if the sector fails to protect students from foreign government coercion and intimidation.
The Group of Eight, which represents the big research universities, said harassment and censorship was unacceptable, but it also argued the documented examples were “not characteristic of the typical student experience at Australian universities”.
Matthew Brown, the deputy chief executive of the Group of Eight, said the “primary responsibility for monitoring the actions of foreign governments on Australian soil lies with the Australian government and its agencies, not universities”.
Labor’s education spokesperson, Tanya Plibersek, said: “One of the great benefits of an Australian university education should be that we can show students from around the world that freedom of thought, robust debate, and polite disagreement is healthy.”
The Chinese embassy in Canberra did not respond to the substance of the Human Rights Watch report, including testimony from students that “the fear of fellow students reporting on them to the Chinese consulate or embassy and the potential impact on loved ones in China led to stress, anxiety, and affected their daily activities”.
The human rights organisation said it had “verified three cases of students in which the police in China visited or asked to meet with their families regarding the student’s activities in Australia”.
The Chinese embassy’s media section issued a brief email to Guardian Australia that said Human Rights Watch was “always biased on China”.
“The relevant rubbish report is not worth commenting [on] at all.”
The education minister, Alan Tudge, did not respond to requests for comment.