In the wake of Australia’s Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) Bill 2020 research administration is more important than ever

Australia’s Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) Bill 2020  is the latest piece of legislation concerning foreign interference and national security at a federal level. It requires that states, territories, local governments and public universities notify the Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs of their foreign arrangements, with the aim of ensuring that such arrangements do not adversely affect Australia’s foreign relations and are consistent with Australia’s foreign policy.

The Bill was passed in December 2020, and while we have all watched with interest the groundwork being placed for its implementation, it has only been recently that its impact on Australian public universities has been made apparent.

The Australian Government launched its online portal and public register for the Foreign Arrangements Scheme, by which arrangements are reported and may be publicly viewed. As of 10 March 2021 all prospective arrangements between Australian public universities and foreign entities must be reported for approval. By 10 June 2021, pre-existing foreign arrangements must be reported.

These reporting mandates are impacting the operations of Australian public universities, and pose a challenge for research offices across the country.

In the service of this requirement, universities must provide copies of all arrangements, both pre-existing and prospective, with foreign entities considered to have insufficient institutional autonomy. Complete copies of every arrangement that falls within the scope of the foreign interference bill will be required of universities, along with the ongoing need to easily access and administer the progress of each submission, update, approval, and rejection.

Some of these arrangements go back many years and represent collaboration with multiple entities from diverse countries and institutions. They may have been altered several times. They may have seen multiple iterations. They may even have applied to different entities across different periods of time.

The administrative implications of this regulatory change are significant in their impact on how staff have to store, manage and secure the data they have about projects and personnel.

The approval process means that administrative staff must be able to access information for use in specific ways:

  • be able to differentiate arrangements based on relevant metrics such as country of funding origin, or specific project details;
  • be able to flag and correctly store information about those which have been submitted for approval to avoid duplications;
  • find information on the present state of any given agreement, no matter its age (or which key contributor may have long since left the university’s employ);
  • know which of these agreements have been approved and may continue to go ahead.

Some Australian public universities are well-placed to manage the additional administrative burdens imposed by the new regulations. Those with research administration solutions already capable of collecting, storing and extracting complex information sets have an advantage over the rest.

For other universities, who may not yet have flexible and integrated systems in place to store this information, data may be kept in isolated silos, or stored in such a way that it cannot be viewed all in one place, if at all. In these cases, compliance with the new requirements may necessitate months of high costs and long hours.

When large quantities of data are extracted and manipulated, even using relatively simple metrics to define them, every extra step becomes a potential source of complication. The challenges to administrative staff in this case have been in dubious data quality, a low level of data integration, and in overly-complicated hurdles to access information.

At ResearchMaster, we’ve been seeking feedback on this process from our own clients as to how they are managing the requirements:

“We used the built-in configurability of ResearchMaster Enterprise to make minor modifications to our existing processes,” says Scott McWhirter, Executive Manager, Research Intelligence and Quality from the University of Technology Sydney. “It was all in our control, so there was no delay while we waited for an update or a new release—we had everything we needed.”


About the Author

Anita Chai is Senior Manager, Industry Collaboration & Strategy at ResearchMaster and has over fifteen years’ experience in client services and implementation of research management software. Anita’s deep knowledge of higher education research management ensures she effectively interprets and delivers on the objectives of her clients.

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