In this analysis article from Middle East Solidarity magazine, issue 9, Anne Alexander investigates how Egypt’s military dictatorship is hoping to entice UK universities to invest in its grandiose building projects. Meanwhile academics are challenging university managers’ bid to cosy up to a regime which systematically represses human rights and academic freedoms, reports Leon Rocha
Read the full issue online here
Under the banner of promoting ‘transnational education’, Egypt’s brutal and corrupt military regime is hoping to lure UK universities into costly investments in ‘new cities’ in the desert. A delegation of senior managers from eleven UK universities organised by the international arm of employers’ association Universities UK enjoyed a whirlwind tour of several of these building projects in June this year as part of a trip to promote “international branch campuses, partnerships, collaborative research, student and staff exchange programmes, joint funding applications, and capacity building”. Institutions taking part in the delegation included Coventry University, Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, University of East Anglia, Edinburgh Napier University, University of Leicester, University of Liverpool, Manchester Metropolitan University and several others.
Behind the rhetoric of collaboration and advancing education lies the calculation that Egypt could be a lucrative market for some UK institutions, with a rising number of Egyptian students prepared to pay for a degree validated by a British university or study in an international branch campus.
There will also be vast opportunities for the regime and its partners in the private sector to enrich themselves in the huge construction projects now underway in the ‘New Administrative Capital’ east of Cairo, ‘New Alamein City’ and other mega building projects. Reports in the media suggest that Sisi’s real estate salesmen are desperate to lure in prospective investors by any means necessary. An investigation by Middle East Eye earlier this year found that a presentation by the Egyptian Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research had falsely claimed that a raft of prestigious international universities were already committed to opening branch campuses in the new administrative capital.
Yet universities from Canada and Sweden named as future residents of an academic quarter in the new city said they had no plans to build a campus there.
Whether or not they provide a good return for investors, these projects will do little to improve education for millions of ordinary Egyptians whose living standards have plummeted in recent years thanks to cuts to subsidised food and fuel and cannot ever hope of living or studying there. Egypt’s government data service CAPMAS recently reported that nearly 30 percent of Egyptians nationwide were living below the poverty line of 482 Egyptian pounds per month (just over £20). Meanwhile luxury flats in New Alamein City, one of the locations visited by the UUK delegation, are on the market for 7.7 million Egyptian pounds (£298,000).
The presence of international universities also has another purpose: whitewashing the regime’s horrendous track record of abuses of academic freedoms and human rights. Less than three years ago, Cambridge University student Giulio Regeni was abducted, tortured and brutally murdered in Cairo while carrying out research for his PhD.
Human rights organisations and academic experts say that the most likely culprits are to be found in Egypt’s labyrinthine network of security services, which have been leading a campaign of forced disappearances directed at opposition activists following the military’s seizure of power in the July 2013 coup.
These same security services are routinely involved in violating the rights of Egyptian students and academics. They are an insidious part of university life: ‘vetting’ academic appointments, intervening violently to suppress protests, ‘reminding’ academics not to cross ‘red lines’ in the content of their lectures, and even on their private social media pages. The consequences of failing to self-censor are harsh: hundreds of students and academics have been arrested in recent years, with many facing trials before military courts.
Vivienne Stern, director of UUK’s international arm, which organised the Egypt delegation told the Guardian that academic freedom was “an essential ingredient in excellent teaching and research”, and that “Universities UK regularly reviews its partnerships with overseas entities and seeks advice from its board in the light of changing political and social circumstances.”
Giulio Regeni’s “troubling and unresolved” murder was discussed during the UUK delegation, Stern said. She was less forthcoming about what was the response from her Egyptian hosts, and whether any concrete steps were proposed to ensure respect for academic freedoms and basic human rights in any new partnerships with UK universities.
Academics are furious that their senior managers and the British government are prepared to work hand-in-glove with the Sisi regime. In a protest letter published in The Guardian on 22 August, hundreds of academics challenged UUK over its links with the Egyptian government.
The academics’ letter hit back at the UUK delegation, questioning “the wisdom and legitimacy of this move to do business as usual with an authoritarian regime that systematically attacks research, education and academic freedom.”
‘We won’t do ‘business-as-usual’ with this authoritarian regime’
University of Liverpool UCU first discovered, on 26 June 2018, that University of Liverpool’s vice-chancellor, Professor Dame Janet Beer, signed the Memorandum of Understanding with Khaled Abdel-Ghaffar (Egyptian Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research), through the official Twitter accounts of Universities UK and University of Liverpool. The memorandum outlined “a range of options for collaboration including joint research activities, academic staff and student mobility and the potential to develop an International Branch Campus (IBC) in Egypt in the future”. University of Liverpool UCU’s committee therefore contacted their friends and colleagues at University of Cambridge UCU, and collaboratively penned the letter of protest to The Guardian.
UK universities, instead of challenging global injustices, act as handmaidens to the Conservative government’s questionable agendas.
This incident is indicative of at least three problems in UK Higher Education. First, senior management feel little need to consult the university staff and student body over key policy changes and important decisions, which are then presented as a fait accompli via the university’s marketing and communications department.
University of Liverpool’s deal with Egypt coincided with Liverpool senior management tried to push through 220 redundancies.
Second, senior management at UK Higher Education, jetting around the world on their expenses accounts to sign lucrative deals with volatile and authoritarian regimes, demonstrate the complete emptiness of their regular pronouncements on how they are absolutely committed to human rights. The Egyptian Government under Sisi has presided over the worst human rights crisis in the country, including the violent crackdown on LGBT people and feminist activists who risked their lives by speaking out against sexual harassment and assault in Egypt.
It is profoundly troubling to University of Liverpool UCU that Professor Dame Beer, who was awarded her Damehood for her “services to equality and diversity” within one week of signing the Memorandum, had seemingly little hesitation to commit her university’s staff and students to Egypt. That the announcement of the Memorandum of Understanding took place on 26 June 2018, the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, was even more egregious and reprehensible.
Thirdly, in our view, this episode reflects the cosy relationship between the Conservative government and Universities UK, the self-appointed “voice of UK universities” and the organisation that Professor Dame Beer leads as President. In November 2015, during Sisi’s visit to the UK, the two governments signed a Memorandum of Understanding around cooperation in Higher Education. In January 2018, the UK Minister for Higher Education and Industrial Strategy, Sam Gyimah, has signed another Memorandum with Khaled Abdel-Ghaffar on UK universities establishing branch campuses in Egypt–this was proudly publicised by Universities UK.
By June 2018, Professor Dame Beer signed her deal between University of Liverpool and Egypt. This shows how senior management at UK universities, instead of challenging global injustices and speaking truth to power, happily act as handmaidens to the Conservative government’s questionable agendas. University of Liverpool UCU and the Liverpool Guild of Students, together with UCU branches at University of Cambridge and other institutions, will continue to debate these serious issues and raise awareness among the staff and student body.
Leon Rocha is an Ordinary member of the University of Liverpool UCU branch committee