Poster of UoB Dubai campus with

Boycott of the University of Birmingham Dubai campus gathers momentum

Following the widely reported decision by staff to boycott the University of Birmingham’s Dubai campus we can report that the campaign has been growing from strength to strength, while, for the time being, the University negotiators appear determined to remain silent. We can also report the latest timeline for the Dubai expansion and our related concerns.

Staff at the University of Cambridge and the University of Liverpool recently passed motions expressing their solidarity, while the University of Warwick, Durham, and Exeter UCU branches have also passed on messages of solidarity. Our open letter calling on academics to boycott the new Dubai campus has well over 200 signatories and we encourage everyone to sign this if you’ve not done so already.

The next step in the campaign has been a targeted poster campaign, with posters going up across all Schools involved in supporting the new Dubai campus, together with preparations for a motion to go to national congress. This would make the campaign a truly international boycott. The full motion passed by members is available on our website.

In terms of negotiations with the University we can only report their continued silence at this stage. They seem unable to respond to even basic requests for meetings or for further information. In particular, as reported in December, they have repeatedly breached our procedure agreement in refusing to meet with us under our normal ‘JNCC’ procedure (Joint Negotiating and Consultative Committee) where we would expect to have the opportunity to put our questions. We have contacted our regional office about referral to ACAS and informed the University that this will be the next step. They are yet to respond.

The concerns raised by us fall into three main categories, all of them extremely serious:

  • Lack of safety for LGBTQ staff and students, staff from minority with religious and ethnic groups, and anyone found to have contravened the draconian laws in the UAE on expressing political opinion. All groups face the possibility of arbitrary detention without due process;
  • Lack of academic freedom. We know that all courses on offer in Dubai are being ‘vetted’ so as to comply with ‘red lines’ set out by the UAE authorities. We do not know what these are, but expect they relate to political opinion, gender and sexuality, and religious expression. These are subjects of much of our academic teaching and research and such Orwellian practices represent a major breach of our right to academic freedom under the University’s Statutes.
  • Exploitation of forced migrant labour. The company contracted to construct our new campus, Tecom, have been identified by human rights observers as abusing migrant workers through such practices as removal of passports, using indentured labour (forced labour in which employees have to use their wages to pay off usurious debts before being released from contract), and extreme low pay. Precise figures are difficult to come by but human rights groups estimate that deaths run into the thousands each year. The University have responded that a ‘questionnaire’ was completed in 2017 by their contractor. No details have yet been provided. Tecom are not a registered company outside of Dubai, with no publically available records.

In the absence of any response to our questions we submitted a Freedom of Information Request last year in order to obtain the equality assessments performed in relation to the new campus. We are yet to receive a response and the University has now breached the Freedom of Information Act 2000 by not disclosing the requested information within the statutory time frame. We have informed the University that failure to comply will see them being referred to the Information Commissioner’s office.

Future developments

The University’s external relations team have recently disclosed the University’s timetable for the new campus, stating that a ‘design agreement’ was signed off with Tecom in December 2018, with a planned opening date of September 2021.

They have also disclosed the expected student numbers as follows:

jb1

Under current estimates these figures show that the new campus will still be well short of the 4,500 capacity 10 years after opening. They also disclosed the current recruitment rate for 2019/20 as follows:

jb2

Our information is that the very modest figures for 2018/19 were only met through extensive use of scholarship schemes, while the University remain well short of their target for 2019/20 with just 8 students. Taken together this suggests that the campus is currently generating very little money and that the £100m investment, which can only be a cross subsidy from UK student fees, looks extremely ambitious and exposes the University serious long term financial risk. We note the recent collapse of the University of Readings Malaysian campus, leading to a reported £27m loss, and other major failures such as the closure of the UCL campus in Qatar, and others in China, and across the Gulf. Clearly it is UK students and staff set to be the ones losing out if it all goes wrong with our jobs and education on the line.

In the absence of any leadership or direction from the University on this issue the only course of action that remains for us is to mobilise our membership. Please support us in making our voices heard loud and clear and holding our senior managers accountable for the reputation of our University.

Selected media coverage

The Guardian: Birmingham University staff to boycott UAE campus after jailing of academic (22/11/2018)

The Times Higher Education: Birmingham union members vote to boycott dubai campus (22/11/2018)

BBC Radio: BBC WM 95.4 – James Brackley, President of Birmingham UCU, on The Paul Franks Show (26/11/2018)

ITV News: ITV News at Ten – University of Birmingham staff to boycott Dubai campus (22//11/2018)

Channel 4 News: Channel 4 News – University of Birmingham staff to boycott Dubai campus (22/11/2018)

BBC News: BBC News – Matthew Hedges: University staff’s Dubai campus boycott (23/11/2018)

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