UoB Debrief: A detailed rebuttal of Tim Jones

Following the responses we have received since an email was sent out by the Pro Vice Principal Tim Jones on Friday 30th November on the University of Birmingham Dubai campus, we want to give you an overview of some of our outstanding questions and concerns. We first turn to the following opening lines in the UoB Briefs email from him dated 30th November:

TJ1

The University’s own statement on inclusion says that “[we] remain committed to promoting equality, diversity and fairness irrespective of age, disability, gender, pregnancy or marital status, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation or transgender status”. Unfortunately, the University of Birmingham Dubai campus is so “inclusive” that references to LGBTQ rights have had to be removed from the staff handbook; Shia Muslim, Jewish, and atheist staff have been either denied entry or had to falsify their religion in order to gain entry to the UAE; and many academics and activists have been arbitrarily detained by the UAE authorities, most recently Durham PhD student Matthew Hedges.

The email continues:

TJ2

While it is comforting to know that the “strategic vision” is designed with the “long-term benefit of staff, students and the University as a whole”… Did anyone actually think of consulting with staff and students? The Vice Chancellor was of course royally grilled on the Dubai campus at the VC Question time event earlier this year – indeed, the headline of the Tab article covering the event simply read “When are you going to resign?“. Meanwhile all of the campus trade unions have been asking for discussions to take place with them for months on the development of the Dubai campus, to which the response from somewhere behind a sofa in Tim Jones’ office was simply “no comment”, sent via HR.

Then there is the question of whether or not the University’s operations in other parts of the world therefore make it okay to operate in Dubai. Clearly not, but equally, in none of these places has the University proposed a new campus! The closest is probably the University’s partnership in Singapore… perhaps having more consultation and transparency on the University’s partnership in Singapore would also be an option..? “No comment”.

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Niceties aside, this paragraphs gets at the big £££ question. “Market” + “demand” + “contract with local dictator” = “profit”. At least that’s the theory. But the use of ‘long-term’ here is telling — this suggests that the Dubai campus is currently costing more to run than it generates in income, which makes sense given that they only took 100 students in 2018, despite a generous scholarship campaign which we would welcome being proportionately applied to Edgbaston students. However, the evidence we have heard from members is that a vast amount of support and administrative work on the Edgbaston campus is currently required for a group of students the size of a small department. They’ve then signed a £100m construction contract in the hope that student numbers can be increased to 4,500. But what are the terms of this contract? And what happens if these ambitious student numbers cannot be reached? When does the University think the Dubai campus will start covering its costs?

Then there is the rather Orwellian claim that Dubai opens up new opportunities for “research and teaching innovations”. These innovations could include, for example, how to conduct ethnographic research while in solitary confinement; how to censor a curriculum on ethics, religious education, gender politics, or international relations to comply with UAE’s strict legal code; or, perhaps, how to lead a module if you’ve been denied a visa to enter the country!

tj4

This seems like a good opportunity to point out the University’s shocking and thoroughly disgraceful failure to call for the release of Matthew Hedges. The point “not without risks” seems something of an understatement… and then to compare the political risks of operating in the UAE to those in Edgbaston really seems quite extraordinary.

In terms of economic risks to the Edgbaston campus, do they mean those created by the massive investment in Dubai? Certainly, in the plans seen so far there is no indication of how the University will ‘monitor, manage and mitigate’ this project should the projected ‘income diversification’ fail to occur. We call on the University to let us know what plans they have in place to manage the financial failout for the Edgbaston campus should the Dubai campus fail to cover its costs?

To return to the Dubai campus, let’s unpack some of the conflations here. Firstly, the paragraph seems to equate individual academic activities in a different country with opening a campus in that country. If an individual academic operates in a different country that in no way constitutes an endorsement of its laws or its values, as the depressing cases of Matthew Hedges and Giulio Regeni have both recently demonstrated. In the light of such events, it is obscene to use academic work in other countries to justify a £100m investment with a ruling family’s construction company. Secondly, it then treats that initial choice as a given, as if the University is somehow now bound by the laws of another country with no choice about the decision in the first place, when in fact we now know that they were quietly signing contracts on the phase 2 expansion during the Autumn term.

Finally, having now signed these contracts, Tim Jones presents staff safety as a means of absolving the University of its own values. Similar examples in which ‘safety’ is cited at the expense of academic and individual freedom can be found in the ‘Equality and Diversity in Dubai’ document, which states that “we will provide a working and learning environment based on equality, dignity and respect for all” but that the “University can only ensure fair treatment within the boundaries of our operation” (i.e. within Dubai law). Having absolved itself of the effects of its own choices it becomes the responsibility of “applicants and staff to make an informed decision as to whether they wish to work in Dubai”.

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Indeed. But this therefore begs the question of what are our “values” as a global University? Human rights are not mentioned anywhere in this brief despite numerous issues raised by human rights campaigners about how academics, journalists, and activists are treated in Dubai. And what about our commitments to gender equality, reduced inequality and peace and justice? This Brief suggests those goals are global insofar as they are abstract, but form no part in any actual decision-making process.

Exploring the Statutes of the University more carefully, we in fact find that the operations in Dubai are a very explicit breach of the University’s commitments to academic freedom, which reference the following UNESCO (1997) definition:

“…the principle of academic freedom should be scrupulously observed. Higher-education teaching personnel are entitled to the maintaining of academic freedom, that is to say, the right, without constriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom of teaching and discussion, freedom in carrying out research and disseminating and publishing the results thereof, freedom to express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work, freedom from institutional censorship and freedom to participate in professional or representative academic bodies. All higher-education teaching personnel should have the right to fulfil their functions without discrimination of any kind and without fear of repression by the state or any other source.

There is also the major breach of the University’s recognition agreements with the campus trade unions, which Tim Jones has simply stated will not apply to the Dubai campus… despite it being part of the University of Birmingham. We have also pushed them on their commitment to ensure the phase 2 campus development in Dubai does not make use of forced migrant labour. In his emails to us, Tim Jones asserts that they have asked for a “questionnaire” to be completed and have conducted site inspections. We have already submitted our Freedom of Information Requests to establish what this actually means in practice, whether or not any issues were in fact noted, and whether or not a “questionnaire” could possibly be sufficient when completed by a company operating in a country with a reputation for human rights abuses.

Lastly, we have a further important question on how these assurances affect support staff. Tim Jones recently informed us that “[we] have always respected the views of those staff and students who do not wish to engage with our Dubai campus”. We want specific clarification that this means that all staff who have non-Dubai-specific positions can opt out of any work related to Dubai, even if that work takes place in Edgbaston. Covering for example IT Services, Library Services, and Administrative Services.

In the meantime, we ask all staff and students to support the ongoing boycott campaign in any way you can, and to please sign the following open letter:

https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScG1cFquJxr_kCfRt-8EGYHuzP_NHAF5mYMRUriR8q9C7Jqyg/viewform

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