Despite Limits on Freedom, Foreign Campuses Retain Value, Speakers Say

March 05, 2013

More than a thousand representatives from academe, government, and business are meeting here this week to discuss higher education's increasingly international landscape—and the occasional friction such global activities can invite.

Dubai, one of the seven principalities that make up the small, oil-rich United Arab Emirates, is a growing destination for students from the Middle East, India, and China, making it a logical host for the Going Global conference, said the British Council, the British government's cultural and educational arm and the event's organizer.

But recently the Emirates have been better known as the site of an academic controversy.

Last month the London School of Economics and Political Science canceled a conference on the Arab Spring in the U.A.E. after Emirati authorities asked that a talk about the kingdom of Bahrain be dropped from the program. The London School professor who was scheduled to give the talk, Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, was not allowed to enter the country. The Emirati government's actions brought widespread condemnation in academe, and another higher-education conference that was to be held in Dubai was canceled in protest.

The British Council said it preferred a different approach. It is in favor of open debate and engagement, not boycotts, said Jo Beall, the council's director of education. She said that countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, of which the U.A.E. is a member, are at the "cutting edge" of efforts to internationalize higher education, and that holding the conference in Dubai "contributes to the sterling efforts being made in countries like the U.A.E. and Qatar to open their societies to international debates."

As for the British scholar who was denied entry into the U.A.E., Ms. Beall said that "every country has a right to issue visas to whoever it wants to issue visas to." But she added that, as a graduate of the London School of Economics, she had "sympathy for the position" of the university.

Many participants at the conference argued that foreign universities must abide by the rules of their host countries—or, as one delegate put it, "like it or lump it." The London School's decision came up in at least one session of the conference, yet overall discussion of the recent controversy has been muted. Several participants The Chronicle spoke to either didn't know the details of what had happened or declined to comment. Others argued that if Western universities wanted to operate in foreign countries, whether in the Arab world, China, or elsewhere, they had to adapt.

Foreign universities are guests in the United Arab Emirates and need to be "aware of the environment they're entering," said Warren Fox, executive director for higher education at the Knowledge and Human Development Authority, a Dubai government agency that accredits and regulates foreign higher-education institutions.

"If universities decided they could only go to countries with the same cultural and political values, they wouldn't go abroad at all," said Mr. Fox. "And I think they should, because of the benefits to students and to universities."

Mr. Fox noted that American universities also sometimes decline to let controversial figures speak on their campuses.

'You Have to Be Sensitive'

The United Arab Emirates is home to 37 international branch campuses, which serve its large expatriate population. The government of Abu Dhabi, part of the U.A.E., is also financing lavish new campuses for New York University and the Sorbonne.

The United Arab Emirates provides a "safe, tolerant, and prosperous environment for many people from around the globe," the country's higher-education minister, Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan, told participants at the conference.

But universities here must also obtain security clearances to hire academics, organize conferences, and invite speakers. In the wake of the Arab Spring, authorities have tightened restrictions on freedom of expression and arrested nearly a hundred human-rights activists and Islamists they accuse of plotting to overthrow the state.

Raj Gill, the Middle East and North Africa director for Middlesex University, a British institution with a campus in Dubai, argued that "when you work overseas, you work in the context and with the laws of that country."

"You have to be careful what you say and how you say it," said Mr. Gill. "You have to be sensitive."

But Mr. Gill and others emphasized that the breakneck speed of development in the region and its relative openness to international business and education make it an important place to operate in.

What happened to the London School is "very unusual," said Ammar Kaka, executive dean of the Dubai campus of Heriot-Watt University, in Edinburgh. With 3,300 students, the British university operates the largest branch campus in the United Arab Emirates. Its new, half-built campus rises among the sand dunes on the edge of Dubai International Academic City, a "free zone" that is home to dozens of foreign universities.

"I've worked here for four years, and we haven't faced any challenges like that," said Mr. Kaka. "But our subject is engineering. We don't teach politics here or back in the United Kingdom."

The conference drew delegates from around the world but is dominated by British institutions. Many have been hit hard by recent austerity measures, and the event is an opportunity to promote partnerships and distance-learning programs—an effort that received support from a high-level British official.

In an opening address, David Willetts, the British minister of state for universities and science, described the United Arab Emirates as "a valued partner of the British government and the British education sector."