A 2019 protest against Chinese government interference in Australian universities (Image: AAP/Dave Hunt)

The news last week that University of Technology Sydney (UTS) had been given advice by an internal committee to avoid politically sensitive topics for its China courses has raised the troubling issues of self-censorship in Australia’s tertiary sector.

The ABC reported that UTS “considered telling staff to censor teaching material”. In reality, the university asked an internal panel for recommendations on China content and platform access, receiving but rejecting the advice to adjust teaching content.

UTS did, however, offer general advice on digital platforms that could be accessed in the People’s Republic for teaching, amid concerns that Beijing could “turn off” physical access to UTS course materials.

But concerns about self-censorship at a range of levels in universities are real and have been well documented as Chinese student numbers have soared alongside a program of soft power by the Chinese government that has included a focus on Western educational institutions.

Front and centre are the Confucius Institutes, joint ventures between local universities and the Centre for Language Education and Co-operation (also known as Hanban), an arm of the Chinese Education Ministry.

China likes to play cute by comparing its institutes to cultural institutes operated by a range of European nations, such as France’s Alliance Francaise, Germany’s Goethe-Institut, and the British Council. Yet none of these sits inside universities.

In other Western nations Confucius Institutes have come under increasing scrutiny, and a number have been closed — particularly in the US where the State Department and security agencies have long expressed concern.

Critics of Confucius Institutes argue that their very presence is a form of institutional self-censorship due to the close involvement of increasingly aggressive Chinese consulates and their “wolf warrior” leaders.

Yet while it is hard to find “smoking guns”, perhaps the proof lies in the fact that Australian universities continue to renew their contracts with Confucius Institutes, carefully select their teachers, and avoid discussing large slabs of Chinese history — including the Tiananmen Square massacre, the ongoing battle for Taiwan, Tibet, and the gulags in Xinjiang.

The Australian government targeted Confucius Institutes under its latest probe into Chinese influence in universities and is keen to know why they shouldn’t be registered under the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme (FITS) — something that has incensed Beijing.

This has been something Confucius Institutes and their hosts have resisted. Some have rewritten their agreements to dodge what could be inevitable forced FITS registration.

In an environment where global demand for foreign study has plunged, universities have scrambled to retain existing international students and, even more problematically, attract new recruits by offering online courses at the same price as face-to-face ($20,000-$40,000 a year).

It is here that UTS did issue some advice to its staff regarding online platforms, noting that many websites and applications, including Google and Facebook, are blocked in China, and that the government has the tools to block whatever content it wishes — and that the government has the tools to block whatever content it wishes.

This is the point that will really have Australian universities sweating. As relationships between Beijing and Canberra continue to deteriorate, China has already issued warnings against studying in Australia. A logical step — if Beijing is intent on making a dent in Australia’s education exports — is to block teaching content that would render Australian online courses useless.

More broadly, self-censorship is insidious due to its often-ephemeral nature — one doesn’t hear about things that don’t happen. Multiple academics who spoke to Crikey said their universities stepped very carefully around all matters relating to China. Ideas are hosed down at concept and planning stages as “too hard”. Conference rooms become unavailable, speakers who have been lined up to appear with “problematic” China critics find themselves busy, and so on.

Of course there’s a very simple test to find out just how much freedom Australia’s universities are prepared to give away regarding all things China: would any of them would host a visit by the Dalai Lama or an exiled Uyghur leader?

The collective answer, at this stage, would be a no.