Durham University axes field research in UAE after academic jailed for ‘spying’

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Universities are reacting to the jailing of an academic for alleged spying by the United Arab Emirates, with Durham suspending all field research in the Gulf state.

Matthew Hedges, a 31-year-old PhD student at Durham, was sentenced to life imprisonment for espionage despite assurances from the UK Government.

His university has suspended all staff and students from travelling to the UAE for research, it emerged on Friday.

The position was first taken up in his department, the School of Government and International Affairs, after his arrest in May and has now spread institution-wide.

The department’s head, Professor John Williams, told the Press Association: “We’ve had a moratorium in place for a number of months now on any staff or student research trips to the UAE.

“The only students of ours going to the UAE now are citizens from the UAE.

“As a department we’ve had the moratorium in place for some time and that’s now a university-wide moratorium on staff and student research travel to the UAE.”

Durham did not comment on the move but it is believed no researchers needed to be brought home early.

Prof Williams added: “I can’t imagine there isn’t a UK university at the moment that isn’t looking very hard at the security of doing research at the UAE as this is clearly an extraordinary challenge to the principles of academic freedom.”

The University of Oxford said it is following the Foreign Office’s advice on travel while keeping tabs on researchers.

“We are comfortable that they are carrying on work safely and we will monitor what they do,” a spokeswoman said.

Universities Minister Sam Gyimah stressed on Thursday the exchange of students with other countries should continue.

Asked whether the long-standing relationships between British and UAE universities can continue after Mr Hedges’s jailing, the minister said: “We have got to be cautious but student exchange is one of these things that should always go on.

“I think that, even where you have countries where you might have profound policy disagreements with, one of the issues that can actually help facilitate a change of outlook and ideas is student exchange programmes.

“It worked during the Cold War, I don’t see why it can’t work now, but that is not in any way to suggest that we approve of what has happened in this case.”

University and College Union (UCU) members of the University of Birmingham voted to turn down teaching at the university’s Dubai campus.

The vote was in part to protest what the UCU called the university’s “failure to stand up for human rights and academic freedom” but it came a day after Mr Hedge’s jailing.

UCU Birmingham branch president James Brackley said: “UCU members at the University of Birmingham are outraged at the sentence of Matthew Hedges and the university’s refusal to address the serious issues we have raised regarding its campus in Dubai.”

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