• Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Secretary Frances Adamson (AAP)
The head of Australia's foreign affairs agency has made extraordinary remarks about Australian universities urging them not to succumb to being silenced by 'untoward influence'.
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9 Oct - 5:17 PM  UPDATED 9 Oct - 6:29 PM

The nation’s most senior diplomat has urged Chinese students to "respectfully engage" in contestable debate while urging Australian universities not to succumb to being silenced.

Department of Foreign Affairs boss Frances Adamson’s intervention follows reports of Australian universities being pressured into changing practices amid criticism from Chinese students.

In one example, the Chinese consulate in Melbourne referred student complaints to Monash University over an online exam in which a question was deemed offensive.

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The university lecturer of the subject was suspended and a textbook retracted.

Ms Adamson in a speech to the Confucius Institute - a Chinese government funded institute - said there had been attempts "at untoward influence and interference".

She told international students that Australian universities were places of free debate.

“No doubt there will be times when you encounter things which - to you - are unusual, unsettling, or perhaps seem plain wrong,” Ms Adamson said.

“And can I tell you, as someone who has studied overseas in three different continents, if you aren’t encountering strange and challenging things you aren’t getting out enough.

“So when you do, let me encourage you not to silently withdraw, or blindly condemn, but to respectfully engage.”

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She said the silencing of anyone – whether students, lecturers or politicians – was an affront to Australian values.

"Respectful and patient discourse with those with whom you disagree is a fundamental skill for our ever-more-connected contemporary world," Ms Adamson said.

Ms Adamson said Australians were vocal about their thoughts while in China it’s understood that friends didn't say things that offend.

"Australians should, and I am sure will, be authentic and true to our own selves, while respecting the practice of others," she said.

"As well, governments themselves must expect, and invite, scrutiny of their actions and their policy positions."

Government influence on students

In a recent paper, think-tank China Matters warned that academic freedom at Australian universities was at risk by Chinese international students aggrieved by perceived slights to their homeland. 

The institute also cautioned over Chinese government efforts to influence academic discourse.

Students, it said, were being pressured by government officials and Chinese student group to "stifle classroom debate" on sensitive topics like human rights, freedom of religion, internet freedom, sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, and Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang independence.

"Academic research, investigative journalism, and first-hand accounts all affirm that PRC students are actively discouraged by their government from speaking critically about the PRC and especially about the Communist Party of China," the institute said in its recent paper.

The institute has urged the Australian government to speak up about "attempts to stifle academic freedom".