Staff at the University of Birmingham have voted for an academic boycott of its campus in the United Arab Emirates as fears grow for the rights and safety of academics and students following the life sentence given to a Durham PhD student accused of spying in the UAE.
The motion passed on Thursday means lecturers based in Birmingham will refuse to teach in Dubai and will not provide the campus with any academic support, such as course materials and marking exams.
James Brackley, the president of the Birmingham branch of the University and College Union (UCU), said: “We call on the university to enter into meaningful negotiations with the trade unions to ensure they protect the safety and wellbeing of staff and students on the Dubai campus.
“We also call on them to hold back on the expansion of the campus until safeguards are in place.”
Brackley said Birmingham University had repeatedly ignored concerns raised about the watering down of LGBT rights on the Dubai campus, academic freedom and the UAE’s poor track record of migrant labour abuses.
In an email to staff, he wrote: “The case of Matthew Hedges shows quite clearly that once someone is detained in Dubai, they will be entirely at the mercy of the Dubai authorities.
“We were also deeply disappointed that the university refused to join us in calling for Matthew’s release, instead citing in an email that it was an issue for Durham University to deal with. Clearly the university continues to put their own self-interest and financial relationships above what is right. This has to stop.”
The UCU has asked Birmingham University to make it clear what safeguards staff and students have in the Gulf state, given that same-sex behaviour, identifying as transgender and LGBT advocacy are illegal on the campus, which is classified as a public space subject to Dubai laws.
It also wants the university to defer signing a £100m contract to build a new campus in Dubai with Telcom, a subsidiary of Dubai Holding, which is majority owned by the emirate’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. This would increase the number of students to 4,500.
The university has committed to giving staff and students at the Dubai branch, which opened in September, the same rights under its internal polices as they would have in the UK. But its ability to provide protection to anyone reported to the emirate’s authorities for breaking the law, whether on or off campus, will be limited, according to the Rainbow Network, which represents LGBT staff.
Hiba Zayadin, who investigates human rights abuses in the UAE and Qatar for Human Rights Watch, said Birmingham University should put its plans to expand the Dubai campus on hold following Matthew Hedges’ imprisonment.
“Universities who have accepted money from the UAE or have campuses or branches there should publicly condemn this appalling verdict,” she said.
“As long as academic institutions partnering with the UAE or sending students there cannot guarantee their students’ safety, any further planned partnerships in the works should absolutely be put on hold until the UAE reforms its abusive practices.
“Those already with campuses in the UAE should be very seriously reviewing their relationship with the country.”
But the universities minister, Sam Gyimah, said partnerships between UK and UAE universities should continue. “We have got to be cautious, but student exchange is one of these things that should always go on, even where you have countries where you might have profound policy disagreements with,” he said.
“It worked during the cold war – I don’t see why it can’t work now. But that is not in any way to suggest that we approve of what has happened in this case.”
A spokesperson for Birmingham University said: “We have always respected the views of those staff who do not wish to engage with our Dubai campus and have been clear from the outset that opportunities to work in Dubai are optional for all staff, and indeed in most instances, staff have actively applied for these roles.”