Universities hire McGrathNicol to assess foreign interference risk

29 April 2021 Consultancy.com.au 2 min. read

A set of Australian universities have tapped McGrathNicol to help assess the potential risk of foreign interference in their research programmes – with a focus on threats from China. 

The move is fueled by global concern that academic researchers from China are infiltrating top universities worldwide – sending the findings back home for intelligence and military use. In 2018, Australia’s government enacted the Foreign Influence Transparency Register – where certain activities conducted on behalf of a foreign government or political institution have to be declared.

The universities of Sydney, New South Wales, Monash and Queensland have chosen to highlight their commitment in this space – hiring specialist corporate advisory firm McGrathNicol to help detect the risk of influence. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, this might involve auditing academics to check for secondary loyalties.

Universities hire McGrathNicol to assess foreign interference risk

Leading the charge is John Garnaut – a senior risk advisor at McGrathNicol, and a widely recognised authority on elite politics, political business and foreign interference techniques. Garnaut has a background in law and journalism – including six years as China correspondent at media company Farifax. 

Between 2015 and 2016, Garnaut was an advisor to then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, continuing as principal advisor to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet till 2017. His focus area was analysis and policy response to authoritarian influence. 

His task is now to bring this expertise to some of Australia’s leading educational institutions – including his alma mater Monash. Supporting him is forensic expert Matt Fehon – a McGrathNicol partner and 25-year veteran in the space of financial crime, corporate corruption and regulatory investigations. 

The pair will have to toe a careful line with the new assignment. While crucial for security, the policy response to external interference has been deemed exaggerated by many in the academic world – who are concerned about the damage to global academic collaboration, and the lack of transparency in the government’s approach to threat detection.

According to Sydney Morning Herald, Fehon has acknowledged the importance of cross-border collaboration – more pronounced with a crucial economic ally such as China – and assured stakeholders that McGrathNicol’s work will preserve these relationships while keeping a keen eye on threats and conflicts of interest.