University of Cambridge accused of planning unethical deal with United Arab Emirates

‘It would be shameful if the University of Cambridge were willing to be used in this way’


University of Cambridge has come under scrutiny for its plans to create a “money-spinning deal” with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), on the grounds of the nation’s lack of freedom of speech, human rights and LGBTQ+ rights.

Although Cambridge have officially provided few details about the deal, internal university documents seen by The Guardian revealed that the deal will be a £400 million collaboration, helping Cambridge to “weather the challenges” of Covid, Brexit, and limited funding. This would be the biggest deal of its kind in the university’s history.

However, human rights researcher, Nicholas McGeehan, has called this deal a “Faustian pact”, as he believes the UAE is a “deeply illiberal state” with a “zero-tolerance” approach to free speech and critical thought.

Internal university documents seen by The Guardian state that the UAE has pledged to commit £312 million – the biggest single donation by far that the university has received – and £90 million will be paid in kind through Cambridge staff time.

During the 10-year collaboration, the money will assist Cambridge in “weather[ing] the challenges faced by universities as a result of Covid, Brexit and a constrained funding environment.”

However, experts have criticised the University for partnering with a nation that opposes the ethos of the British education system.

Human rights researcher, Nicholas McGeehan, specialises on the Gulf states, and has been one of the people to criticise the potential collaboration: “This is a Faustian pact that should be of profound concern to Cambridge faculty, students and alumni and UK academia more broadly.

“The UAE is a deeply illiberal state with a zero-tolerance stance on free speech and critical thought, and it deals with its critics in the most brutal fashion imaginable through torture and forced disappearances.”

He also added: “Only academics who see higher education as a commercial enterprise could think that it’s worth the cost.”

The general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), Jo Grady said: “This is a clear case of a rich authoritarian state using its wealth in an attempt to launder its reputation. It would be shameful if the University of Cambridge were willing to be used in this way.”

“It is one of the wealthiest institutions in the UK and does not need this money. UCU members in other institutions have raised concerns about LGBT+ rights in the UAE, and this deal looks especially problematic in light of the legal action which the British academic Matthew Hedges is pursuing over alleged false imprisonment and torture.”

Indeed, the internal Cambridge documents acknowledge these kinds of criticisms, recognising the risk of reputation damage posed by the collaboration, and raising concerns about a “values gap”, “academic freedom and institutional autonomy”, and the “potential burden such a large partnership could place on parts of the university and attendant mission drift.”

The documents also state that the university is “fully aware of the UAE’s recent treatment of UK researchers and other visitors, which reflect a dramatically different cultural and legal context than that which may be familiar to our staff and students.” It promises to “put in place sufficient support to ensure that our staff are prepared before their work in the UAE begins.”

However, a university spokesman ultimately commented that: “This is an exciting and unique opportunity for world-leading collaborations on efforts to transform economies and societies.

“The potential partnership will help prepare education systems for a radically changing labour market, promote greater global understanding through appreciation for Islamic art and culture, and develop innovative technological solutions to the challenges facing our planet, helping the transition away from fossil fuels.”

If the deal is approved, the UAE-Cambridge Innovation Institute will be created. It will begin virtually, but will culminate in “a physical footprint” in the UAE with its own staff and “joint UAE and University of Cambridge branding.”

Key areas of focus of the collaboration would include education, Islamic art and culture, and engineering and innovation, particularly including research into alternatives to fossil fuels.

It would also see Cambridge working with “several educational, governmental and corporate partners in the UAE”, involving the university at multiple levels of its economy and society.

According to the internal Cambridge documents, the UAE funding would also go towards the creation of a large number of new posts, including eight endowed lectureships, 24 postdoctoral positions, and 42 PhD fellowships, as well as other management and support roles.

However, when asked about these internal documents, a university spokesperson told The Guardian that although they are currently in talks with the UAE about a “potential partnership”, “no details have been finalised.”

Indeed, in its official announcement on 7th July, the university gave few details beyond confirming that talks with the UAE about a “potential strategic partnership” were occurring.

The university stated that the aims of this potential partnership would be developing “innovative solutions that enable the transition away from fossil fuels”, continuing to develop “high-quality teaching and learning”, continuing to create “social cohesion” through the study of arts and culture, and advancing “globally competitive research, education, and entrepreneurship.”

Several UK universities, including City University, the London Business School, Birmingham, Middlesex and Heriot-Watt, already have branches in the UAE, but the scale of the collaboration with Cambridge will, according to The Guardian, be seen as a “huge coup” for the UAE, which is “keen to use soft power to improve its image on the global stage.” 

Feature image credit: N Chadwick, Creative Commons License