UK universities struggle to instill LGBT wisdom in Dubai – who’d have thought it?

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Despite Dubai being a well-known Islamic state, UK universities saw no difficulty in trying to ensure that LGBT policies were reflected on campus – until they couldn’t. But just how much do they really care?

For the average underpaid academic, stuck in an unrewarding sea of grant-begging, article-writing and ever more relentless paperwork, one would have thought a stint in Dubai was very welcome: sun, sea and sand ad lib, shopping for every taste, students who don’t protest, and accommodation all found.

Certainly a number of universities seem to have thought so: in the last few years London, Manchester, Birmingham and Exeter have all set up shop there, together with – for heaven’s sake – such institutions as Sunderland and Middlesex.

Yet last week we learnt that Birmingham academics were not only not keen, but were actually organising a boycott of their institution’s brand-new Dubai campus. What has happened? The answer tells us a good deal about the people who manage UK universities, and it doesn’t make for reassuring reading.

The immediate cause of complaint was simple. The university had admitted to its staff that however well its generous inclusive LGBT equality policy might go down in leafy Edgbaston it couldn’t be guaranteed in Islamic Dubai.

Although it had previously given an assurance to students and staff alike that all protections available to LGBT members at home would be strictly maintained in the new campus, this promise simply could not be met: a fact that immediately led to protests and a rather outraged Guardian article.

One’s first and obvious reaction is equally simple. What on earth was the senior management of Birmingham playing at in making this promise?

Dubai is a conservative Islamic state: fifteen minutes on Google will tell you that the practice and indeed the advocacy of same-sex relations is both unpopular and illegal there, and any recognition of gay marriage out of the question.

In these circumstances, you don’t need to be an Einstein to see that for anyone to promise to protect the rights of LGBT people to engage in whatever relations they please there is fatuous.

That the presumably highly intelligent and well-informed leadership of a founder member of the Russell Group of elite universities, a showcase for the excellence of British higher education, should have deliberately done just this beggars belief.

We may never know the full story behind this: universities are good at protecting their own. But perhaps we can hazard a few guesses as to the reasons for this entirely foreseeable debacle.

For one thing, there is the efflorescence during the last ten years in Western Europe, courtesy of among other things the European Court of Human Rights, of the idea that human rights must necessarily involve every kind of sexual freedom, whatever the consequences and in addition whatever public opinion or even voters may have to say about it.

This notion has been ingested wholesale in our universities, and tends to create a curious blindness in those imbued with it. It is quite conceivable that those in charge of Birmingham just could not imagine that anyone could seriously question it, or that governments when pressed would not simply accept it and agree to apply it, whatever their outmoded laws or unenlightened people might might say about it.

More worryingly, one suspects it may have created a parallel inability to articulate to their employees the unpalatable fact that in all conscience they owed it to them to mention: namely, that for better or worse gay rights were not respected in the UAE, and that however much the new campus might in other ways be made in Birmingham’s image, those unprepared to behave according to local norms should not go there.

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Far easier, and far more acceptable to university bureaucracy, to mouth the virtuous platitudes of the institutional policy on LGBT rights and hope for the best.

There may also have been a further element of amour propre in play here. At home Birmingham not only accepts LGBT identity politics as all universities now do, but – no doubt in another department far removed from that which sets up campuses abroad – promotes it with unusual activity and enthusiasm.

Last year, for example, it delighted the Equality Challenge Unit, a worthy if rather silly organisation bankrolled by UK universities and tasked with nagging them to ever more strident equality activities, by producing a rather Kafkaesque “best practice guide on LGBTQ*-inclusive curricula”, complete with “subject-discipline specific guidance examining how LGBTQ inclusion might vary between e.g. Arts and Humanities, STEM or more vocational programmes”.

Having done that, one can perhaps see its reluctance to step down from its pedestal of virtue, even for the purpose of properly informing its employees or accommodating local sentiment in places far removed from studiedly multicultural Birmingham.

But perhaps the most likely explanation is also the most prosaic: Birmingham University simply went ahead with this project, hoping all would be well and not making plans in case it didn’t.

Why? The question, as if you hadn’t guessed, is money. For all the hype about exporting the excellence of the British higher education brand, generously bringing it to students overseas as an alternative to having overseas students go to the trouble and expense of studying in Britain, UK expat higher ed has little to do with your comfortable idea of a university at home.

Beyond the glossy brochures showing young people smiling at a camera on manicured lawns, you can forget visions of erudite academics seeking knowledge for its own sake, or students getting a sophisticated, rounded education by extended intellectual discussion with academics and each other.

Life in expat UK campuses is rather different. The courses they get are overwhelmingly vocational or fairly low-grade legal, commercial or technological.

These are after all easy to teach, cheap to put on, and require minimal staff. There’s also an incentive to make them fairly academically undemanding: UAE students asked to pay close to £20,000 per year (in a country where average earnings are fairly close to those in Britain) might, shall we say, make some comments about value for money if too many of them didn’t get the qualifications they signed up for.

And, most important, they are profitable: indeed, don’t say this too loud, but they would be loved by politicians in the UK with the idea that universities should be service suppliers in the business of packaging learning according to demand and providing their customers with value for money.

Faced with the prospect of a nice little earner from their overseas subsidiary, and possibly even bonuses for senior management at home (yes, these exist even in academia), it suddenly becomes more understandable that those in charge of universities should go hell-for-leather to set up such schemes in countries that will pay well and not ask too many questions about quality.

As for the consequences of offending local sensibility, don’t worry too much: with a bit of luck no-one will complain too loudly in this increasingly unsentimental business, and the money will keep rolling in.

Even this latest debacle, one can see them thinking, will sooner or later blow over. Universities will then be free once again to do what they like best abroad: making easy money from unsuspecting foreigners.