Australian universities don't want to admit they have a problem with foreign interference with much of it going undetected, professor of public ethics Clive Hamilton says.
It comes as Universities Australia has argued universities should be excluded from a bill which would allow the foreign minister to veto or alter international agreements.
A parliamentary inquiry into national security risks in the Australian higher education and research sector has also revealed its terms of reference and called for submissions this week.
Professor Hamilton, who co-authored Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party Is Reshaping the World, said China's interference in Australian universities was undoubtedly the main concern that prompted the inquiry.
"My sense is that there's a great deal of interference activity in our universities that has gone under the radar," he said.
"That's largely because the universities turn a blind eye or want to cover it up. Even those that accept they have a problem don't want to admit it publicly. It's embarrassing to them."
Professor Hamilton said Sydney-based institutions seemed the most recalcitrant on the issue while Melbourne universities were more likely to admit there was a problem.
A recent report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said recruitment of foreign scientists through the Thousand Talents Plan formed a core part of the Chinese Community Party's efforts to build its own power by leveraging foreign technology and expertise. The report said recruitment efforts were widely associated with misconduct, intellectual property theft or espionage.
Professor Hamilton said in the past ASIO has also expressed concern about Iranian students studying nuclear science.
In response to a Senate committee report into the proposed Australia's Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) Bill, Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said definitions should be tightened and further consultation conducted.
"Without clarification, the laws could include a huge number of 'arrangements'," she said.
"The retrospective nature of the bill would mean that the agreements captured could go back decades."
The parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security is seeking information on the prevalence, characteristics and significance of foreign interference, undisclosed foreign influence, data theft and espionage and associated risks to Australia's national security.
It will examine the sector's awareness of the issues and the adequacy and effectiveness of government policies and programs in responding to foreign interference.
The inquiry will be accepting submissions until December 18, 2020 and is expected to hand down its report in July 2021.