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UK-Egypt partnerships accused of ignoring rights abuses for “profit”

More than 200 academics across the UK have signed an open letter accusing Universities UK and the British government of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in Egypt by promoting higher education partnerships between the two countries. UUKi has defended its actions, saying fears have not been overlooked.

A sign reading Verità per Giulio Regeni (Truth for Giulio Regeni) hanging in Garbatella, Rome. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The letter specifically referenced the 2016 murder of Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni

In the letter sent to The Guardian the 233 signatories referenced a series of memoranda of understanding signed over the past number of years that have laid the groundwork for UK HEIs to establish programs in Egypt.

“We refuse to collude in masking human rights abuses in order to make short-term profits”

These include one in January 2018 that saw the removal of barriers to the UK setting up branch campuses in Egypt and another in June when a high-level delegation of UK university representatives visited Egypt to explore research opportunities.

The letter specifically referenced the 2016 murder of Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni who is believed to have been killed by Egyptian authorities over sensitive research he had been conducting in Cairo.

It went on to call the MoUs “a cynical branding exercise” while remaining silent about the disappearance of academic critics and “attacks on Egyptian students’ right to learn without fear”.

“Government officials and university managers seem to have forgotten that only two years ago, Giulio Regeni, a Cambridge PhD student, was abducted, tortured and murdered while undertaking research in Cairo,” the open letter read.

“Giulio was one of many students and academics who have been arrested, tortured, jailed and killed in recent years in Egypt, in the context of a much wider campaign of repression targeting the political opposition, trade unions, civil society, independent media, and the legal profession.”

While many of the signatories listed hail from the Universities of Cambridge and Leeds – two UK institutions where Regeni had studied – there was also a large number from the University of Liverpool, which is currently exploring the possibility of opening an IBC in Egypt.

The signatories also claim that partnerships with Egypt could have implications for staff and students in the UK, as part of a broader trend to marketisation in higher education.

“We welcome collaboration with our Egyptian academic colleagues,” the letter continued, “but we refuse to collude in masking human rights abuses in order to make short-term profits in the global education ‘market’.”

“The freedom academics have… is fundamentally important to UK universities”

One signatory of the letter, Cambridge UCU secretary Waseem Yaqoob, told University of Cambridge newspaper Varsity it is “disgraceful” that UUK is willing to do business as usual with an Egyptian government that “continues to cover up the truth”.

However, director of UUK International, Vivienne Stern, who led the UK delegation to Egypt earlier this year said it is important that UK universities continue to engage internationally in education and research.

“The troubling and unresolved murder of the Cambridge University research student Giulio Regeni has been raised, on numerous occasions, with various representatives of the Egyptian government, including the minister for higher education and the Egyptian ambassador to the UK.

“The case was raised again during the recent delegation of UK university leaders to Egypt,” explained Stern.

“The freedom academics have to conduct their work without state or political interference is fundamentally important to UK universities and, we believe, an essential ingredient in excellent teaching and research.”

She added that UUK regularly reviews its partnerships with overseas entities and seeks advice from its board in the light of changing political and social circumstances.

Similarly, a University of Liverpool spokesperson stated: “The university… is committed to global engagement, which we believe is fundamental to furthering education and research.”

Read the full list of letter signatories here.

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