Letters – 29 November 2018

November 29, 2018

Protect students by cutting UK ties with UAE

Student exchanges can be valuable. But in the case of Matthew Hedges, the Durham University PhD student who was jailed for spying in the United Arab Emirates, the UK universities minister Sam Gyimah’s argument that institutions should not cut their ties with the Arab state holds no water (“Birmingham union members vote to boycott Dubai campus”, News, 22 November).

In extreme security states – which the UAE has sadly become in the course of the past decade as Abu Dhabi’s increasing security obsession has obliterated any genuine autonomy of the six other emirates in this sphere – it matters not what ordinary citizens think, because there is no room for their independent views. The only view that matters is that of the leader (in this case, Mohammed bin Zayed) and his closest associates. After all, two of the most prominent examples of UAE citizens who obtained their PhDs in the UK include those who authorised or publicly justified the treatment of Hedges, my former student at the University of Exeter.

These people include the attorney general, Hamad Al Shamsi, and the minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash.

One could add to this list key individuals who obtained their PhDs at US universities – including the doyen of UAE political science, and standout defender of the authorities in this case, Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, who got his PhD at Georgetown University – my own current institution. Hedges has since been pardoned and, quite possibly, none of these people personally believed that such harsh measures were the right thing in the first place – although it is conceivable that they have over time come to adopt the regime’s line. But that is immaterial, too, since they would never be allowed the autonomy to express anything else, or even the option to remain silent.

By all means, continue to accept UAE students at UK institutions; but that does not require broader partnerships or sending staff or students to the UAE.

Via timeshighereducation.com

Grades of goodness

Simon Baker makes a brave attempt to examine possible grade inflation in some subjects in the UK (“Grade inflation: how certain subjects fuel rise in firsts”, News, 22 November). Factors leading to more first-class degrees could include universities’ greater focus on teaching quality, new learning technology, more relevant assessment that tests real skills, better prepared and more strongly motivated students, some subjects becoming more attractive to high-achieving students, and better access to university for students of high potential thanks to widening participation initiatives. Identifying grade inflation among all these other factors is highly speculative.

But please can we stop referring to first-class and upper second-class degrees as “good honours” or “good degrees”? The implication that a student who, after taking on debt of tens of thousands of pounds and working hard for three years, graduates with a lower second does not have a “good” qualification is unfair and misleading.

We should treat our graduates with more respect and challenge the use of this inaccurate and demeaning term.

Tony Mann

Actively involved

A leading academic has proposed that quality-related research funding should be distributed in England on the basis of the size of a university’s research workforce, not its performance in the research excellence framework (“Scrap REF and allocate QR funding by headcount, says professor”, News, 23 November).

I think that this is a good idea. I certainly agree that the REF has done real harm to the standards of research.

The only problem that I see is who decides who is “research-active”? It is predictable that, if QR funding were distributed on the basis of the number of research-active people, we would find that a lot of research-active people would suddenly materialise. Never underestimate the dishonesty of large organisations.

David Colquhoun
Via timeshighereducation.com

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