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Academic freedom “fundamental” after UAE ruling

The UK HE sector has championed the importance of academic freedom and the imperative to put security of students and staff first, following the United Arab Emirates sentencing a British PhD student to life imprisonment for alleged spying.

PhD student, Matthew Hedges has said he is innocent of the charges. Photo: Facebook/ Matthew Hedges

UCU members at University of Birmingham have voted to turn down teaching at the university's Dubai campus unless explicitly required to in their contract

Durham University PhD student, Matthew Hedges has said that he was researching the country’s security strategy and is innocent of the charges.

UK foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt has said he is “deeply shocked and disappointed” by the verdict, while Abdulla Al Naqbi, head of the Department of Legal Affairs for the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, has said that Hedges was treated “fairly and according to the constitution of the UAE”, following reports that Hedges’s human rights were breached.

University and College Union members at the University of Birmingham have voted to turn down teaching at the university’s Dubai campus unless explicitly required to in their contract, largely as a result of Hedges’s sentence.

Director of Universities UK International, Vivienne Stern, said academic freedom is fundamental to British universities, and UK academics should be able to work in countries where “academic freedom may not always be respected”.

“As the national body representing UK universities we regularly raise concerns about the protection of academic freedom with representatives of the many governments which would like to see a greater degree of collaboration in research and education with the UK,” Stern added.

“We have raised Matthew Hedges’ case with the government and sought reassurances that they are doing all they can to clarify the facts of the case and seek his release.”

President of the University of Liverpool UCU & NEC, Jo McNeill, signed a letter earlier this year criticising the British government’s promotion of university partnerships with Egypt and turning a blind eye to human rights abuses.

She said it is “absolutely imperative” that the HE sector put the safety of staff and students first.

“We repeatedly find they are pushing their neo-liberal agenda by brokering academic relationships in countries with worrying human rights records,” she stated.

“UCU and the rest of the trade union movement must do all we can now to overturn this clear miscarriage of justice and to bring Matthew home to his family.”

In a statement, vice-chancellor of Durham University, Stuart Corbridge said Hedges was detained in conditions which breached his human rights, and the judgement had been “delivered in the absence of anything resembling due process or a fair trial”.

“There has been no information given on what basis Matt was handed this sentence and no reason to believe that Matt was conducting anything other than legitimate academic research,” he added.

In a joint statement, Durham University and the University of Exeter, where Hedges is from, said there was no evidence to show the PhD student was conducting anything other than legitimate academic research.

“The detention of any academic researcher cuts to the core of the principles of academic endeavour,” the statement read.

“It is absolutely vital that academics the world over are free to conduct legitimate research without fear of interference or arrest.”

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