A recent development at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) presents an incisive illustration of the problems and dangers that too much pragmatism and 'playing the game' can visit upon higher education. For a university and a faculty (Humanities, Languages and Social Science) that prides itself on research into social justice, human rights, and on creative expression, the potential and actual hypocrisies are particularly clear.
I refer to the signing of a lucrative contract with the Qatari Ministry of Interior, worth hundreds of thousands, if not millions of pounds, over the next 3 years. Working in partnership with the Greater Manchester Police (GMP) and the UK College of Policing, academics will provide English language tuition to Qatari police cadets and officers, while GMP and the Police College will train them in effective methods of policing. Staff from MMU's Sociology department, who were instrumental in putting together the bid, will also be involved. The faculty have so far released very little official information on the deal, other than to state there are "clearly more opportunities for us in Qatar which is also a priority market for the UK Government" and that it "takes our international aspirations to a new level" (email sent by the Dean, 16 January 2014).
Without being able to comment on the specifics of this latest agreement, it is worthwhile learning something about the university's new business partner. MMU already has deals in place with the Qatar Skills Academy, providing Masters programmes such as MSc Educational Leadership and Management, MA Educational Business and Management, and a BA (Hons) Degree in School Business Management.
The public image of Qatar leads with its architectural motifs, including skyscrapers, luxury hotels, and new universities, signalling its status as an extremely well off Arab Gulf State. Qatar's revenue comes mainly from natural gas, facilitating close ties to the United States. They are hosting the 2022 World Cup, so the UK's current government has been particularly welcoming.
Whilst this superficial skyline may suggest high standards of living, the reality for many is in marked contrast. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have published multiple reports on the effective enslavement of the foreign workers who make up around 80 percent of the Qatari population (and 99 percent of the private sector workforce). These migrants come mainly from East Asia, South-east Asia and Africa, paying middle-men huge fees to gain entry.
Because of the World Cup, their treatment has recently become prominent in the Western press. Many of the male workers hired to construct new stadia are dying of heart attacks brought on by exhaustion, or in building site accidents. Those who survive reside in unsanitary and cramped conditions, which they can't escape because their passports and other documents have been taken from them. As non-citizens, they are not allowed to unionise or seek representation. Female domestic workers are also badly treated, working some of the longest hours in the world and often living in fear. Proposed legal reforms do not bring standards into line with those afforded to citizen workers. Benefits like cradle-to-grave social care are offered only to the small number of entitled citizens who make up 250,000 of a 2 million plus population. When we consider those who reside there thanks to work permits, it is harder to go along with the state's official narrative – a narrative which for project partners is somewhat convenient.
The Qatari population is ruled by an absolute monarch, Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who recently replaced his father. Despite repeated promises, parliamentary elections have not taken place. Work with the National Democratic Institute since 2006 has promoted awareness among the population of certain democratic mechanisms, yet while there are elections for the Municipal Council (and there is even one female member, something which was much commented upon as a positive development), the council has been shown to be relatively powerless, an instrument created to limit and dilute the potential challenges that could be posed by non-royal Qataris and tribal leaders. Their importance must be undermined to preserve the autocratic regime.
This is a complex situation. Author Mehran Kamrava writes:
"It is possible, that having tasted institutional representation, Qataris will demand more. Nevertheless…a distinction needs to be made between cosmetic reform and substantive democracy, a democracy that involves not only elections. A real paradigm shift in the structures of power will be necessary before substantive democracy takes hold. The so-called 'transition paradigm', the notion of immediate democratic changes, needs to be reconsidered. A long-sustained shift in the power paradigm of Qatar seems unlikely today."
Whilst the state allows little room for dissent, compliance is maintained relatively easily because of the citizens' own acquiescence with a government which offers great luxury and wealth to those who are both privileged, and willing to conform. As Mehran Kamrava puts it: "In fact, political dissent in Qatar is relatively benign; a product of inordinate wealth, supported by carefully crafted state policies."
The Economist noted last year, that when citizens do "express the sort of dissent that Qatar’s state-owned Al Jazeera television channel encourages in broadcasts across the Arab world, they do so in whispers, always off the record, at home". It should be acknowledged, however, that even online protest against the Emir from Qataris or others in the region is often of a religiously conservative, rather than pro-democratic bent. Speaking of the number of US universities and institutions who have established campuses in Qatar in recent years, and the unprecedented spending by the current Emir on education, Allen James Fromherz writes that these initiatives have been devised and controlled by the state, allowing them to "consolidate ideological and national loyalty" around the "status quo" of Emiri authority. This state-controlled approach to education furthers the gradual eradication of "traditional forms of identity", which are replaced with officially sanctioned ones.
In Qatar, male homosexuality is illegal. So too are "illicit sexual acts" like sodomy and sex outside marriage. These 'offenses' are punishable by imprisonment, lashings, deportation and death (though this last penalty is apparently rare). Women are legally less entitled than men, their testimony being worth half of a man's in court, for instance. Creative expression is monitored and any anti-government sentiment punished. PEN International is currently highlighting the case of Mohammad Al-Ajami, a student with a young family whose poem, which "insulted the Emir" and expressed support for the Arab Uprisings, was performed in public and uploaded (without his knowledge) to YouTube. Since then, his life sentence has been reduced to 15 years in prison and it's been very difficult for PEN representatives and others to visit him.
Do we really want academics to train the police officers who will enforce laws like these? In some respects, it may be hard to discriminate the official Qatari state from Western ones, particularly when we read the promotional literature promising ex-pats a luxurious and tax-free lifestyle. Yet academics in a humanities faculty should be particularly well placed to perceive such false constructs, and to critique how states use instruments of control to limit dissent and maintain their positions. Academic objectivity may paradoxically make it easier for us to turn a blind eye; to view business deals and partnerships as ways by which we can give a 'helping hand' to countries making imaginary moves toward democracy. Perhaps commenting on the politics of an Arab state far removed from our own both geographically and culturally seems less important than debating local issues. With the involvement of MMU and other UK companies in deals with Qatar, this is a 'local' issue – one which needs deep consideration rather than knee-jerk acceptance.
Of course there are many examples of the UK police offering their expertise abroad. They have helped train officers in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, to name a few. Often this acts as a cover for gaining authority and influence over regional politics, supporting secretive government agendas and intelligence-gathering activities. The reputation of the UK police for good and ethical policing at home is debatable, but it is certainly commodifiable.
The fact that universities are becoming directly involved here is problematic for many reasons which may not be immediately apparent. Working with the police is not in itself a problem; sociologists at MMU have a long history of researching their methods and approaches. The access enabled by trust, and by the maintenance of professional relations, is vital to the field of criminology. It is crossing a line, however, when research subjects become financial partners. Training a foreign police force in this context is not about gathering data, encouraging debate or sharing ideas. Critical approaches are eliminated in order to harmonise with those providing routes to funding and contracts. The primary purpose of MMU's deal with Qatar is to make money; to further marketise academic (and police) expertise.
As a result, staff feel intimidated into not speaking out about their concerns. Accepting cash from those who are fundamentally opposed to the values promoted through academic research and teaching is indefensible. This is not about 'democratising' Qatar's police force, but about the transformation of higher education in the UK.