I am convinced that the University of Edinburgh has made the right decision in cancelling its proposed co-operation with Bahrain.
My hope that the case gains wider publicity so that it will set a precedent: Edinburgh has taken an ethical lead over Bahrain, and any other UK higher education institution would either have to follow that lead, or explain why they had different ethical standards to the UoE.
I am however concerned about the timing of the deal. In mid-December last year UK Middle East Minister Alistair Burt visited Bahrain, promising “British expertise” to help the regime (does anywhere in the Middle east have a UK Minister, I wonder?).
A visit to Bahrain by minor royalty followed, with the now notorious gift of “blood gems” from the King and the Prime Minister. This was followed by the appointment of disgraced former Metropolitan Policeman John Yates as an adviser to Bahrain’s brutal Interior Ministry Police, and of QCs Jeffry Jowell and Daniel Bethlehem as legal advisers to the regime. It was in this time-frame that the Edinburgh deal was announced.
My concern is that the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office had a hand in co-ordinating these initiatives. If so, who did they speak to at the UoE, and what information did they provide about the situation in Bahrain? Disturbingly, Bahrain does not appear on a 12th January FCO list of 26 countries about which it has human rights concerns:
This is despite extensive condemnation of the Bahrain regime by a wide range of Human Rights organisations. Their reports are now helpfully summarised on a single Wikipedia page:
The UoE deal might have been co-incidental to Burt’s offer of “British expertise” to the regime. But if Edinburgh was misleadingly informed about the situation in Bahrain, this raises serious issues regarding FCO interference in UK higher education which could have repercussions beyond Edinburgh, and beyond the single case of Bahrain.
Internationalisation is becoming an evermore important funding stream for UK HEIs. Broadly defined it embraces international agreements, consultancy and accreditation, overseas start-ups, overseas students studying in the UK, increased opportunities for home students to study abroad, and internationalised curricula and campuses. While internationalisation holds out many positive benefits, it can only be sustainable if it is conducted according to clear ethical principles. It is therefore essential that it is not politicised.