Australian universities should diversify international student cohorts to include more students from ally nations an inquiry into national security risks in the higher education and research sectors has been told.
It comes as the peak body for universities called for a coordinated, coherent and proportionate government policy response.
The Cyber Security Cooperative Research Centre (CSCRC) recommended to the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security that the sector diversify overseas students and sources of research collaboration and funding with a focus on fostering stronger partnerships with key allies.
The submission said higher education and research sectors have been "soft targets" for foreign interference and espionage for many years and were overreliant on international students as fee-paying undergraduates and in the research and development workforce.
"Espionage and foreign interference will remain serious threats to Australia's national security and, while there is no silver-bullet solution, risk management and mitigation strategies can help bolster the nation's higher education and research sectors against intrusions," the submission said.
Department of Education, Skills and Employment data shows Chinese students vastly outnumbered those from other countries in 2019. A total of 170,768 students from were mainland China, representing about 32 per cent of international students.
Data from 2018 shows 37 per cent of PhD students in Australia were international students with 75 per cent of those enrolled in science-related degrees.
The CSCRC said the focus should shift to recruiting students from nations which were socially, politically and strategically aligned to Australia.
"This will only serve to strengthen Australia's relationships with its key allies and drive mutually beneficial partnerships," it said.
It also recommended that research partnerships should be strengthened with Australia's strategic allies, including the Five Eyes and The Quad.
The CSCRC submission stressed the importance of cyber security and protection of data and intellectual property at institutions, citing the massive data breach at the Australian National University in November 2018.
Meanwhile, Universities Australia called for government departments and agencies to ensure policies were coordinated, coherent and proportionate to risk and for the University Foreign Interference Taskforce to be the primary mechanism to defend universities against interference.
University of Canberra vice-chancellor Professor Paddy Nixon told the committee that more funding was needed for institutions and key portfolio agencies to keep up with the increasing compliance requirements.
"Publicly funded universities have received no financial support to comply with a growing list of requirements. We urge the committee to consider the cost of ensuring effective mitigation of national security risk," Professor Nixon said.
The Universities Australia submission said the University of Canberra had put guidelines in place to detect foreign interference in clubs and societies and was developing a mandatory training module for staff.