When we travel, our values travel with us

September 4, 2014

I believe that recent Times Higher Education coverage of University College London’s presence in Qatar (“Union claims UCL shirking moral duty over workers’ welfare at Qatar campus”, News, 21 August, and “Labour MP to UCL: tackle Qatar ‘forced labour’ ”, News, 28 August) offers an incomplete picture of our activity in the Gulf and the role that we are playing locally to minimise labour abuses. In particular, the notion that UCL is “shirking its moral duty” over workers’ welfare in Qatar is neither fair nor accurate, and I have offered to meet at the earliest possible opportunity with Alison McGovern MP, the shadow minister for international development, as she requested, so that we may explain UCL’s position.

Since the opening of UCL Qatar, we have worked consistently with our partner on the ground, Qatar Foundation, to encourage better practice and to address the need to deliver meaningful change for migrant workers. The changes will not happen overnight, but we are very encouraged by the willingness of our partner to engage with this issue. Qatar Foundation has published new standards for migrant labour recruitment to Qatar in a document that set out the challenges to bringing about lasting change and also made a series of far-reaching policy recommendations designed to stop human rights violations. We will discuss progress on delivering this agenda at our next formal meeting with Qatar Foundation later this year.

Any university that seeks to branch out and establish an overseas presence faces the challenge of remaining true to its ethos while appreciating that legal and social practices evolve at different rates in different countries. We do not make labour policy in Qatar; however, having chosen the path of constructive engagement, we have a voice, and we are using it to support the case for change. We may be open to criticism from those impatient with the pace of that change, but I believe that it misrepresents us to imply that we are part of the problem and not the solution. Whether in Qatar or elsewhere, we have to respect the laws of the countries where we work, but that should not be taken to mean that we leave our values behind when we leave London.

Nicola Brewer
Vice-provost international
University College London

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