Research damaged as visas withheld

September 29, 2006

Excluded academics blame state paranoia, writes Phil Baty.

Government fear of terrorism and illegal immigration is damaging international academic research, a leading scholar has claimed after five Moroccan colleagues were refused entry to the UK.

Suman Gupta, director of the Ferguson Centre for African and Asian Studies at the Open University, spoke out after being forced to cancel a five-day international workshop when his North African collaborators were prevented from entering the country, despite full sponsorship by the OU and impassioned pleas to visa officials from the vice-chancellor.

Professor Gupta said that the cancelled event had cost the centre at least £10,000, but that the wider cost to the OU and to the UK as a whole following the "humiliation" of international research colleagues was much greater.

Professor Gupta has started a debate on his centre's website. He has called on his colleagues in higher education to jointly build a database of incidents and to produce a research paper on the wider effects of the issue, which he fears will reveal "an ugly picture with broad-ranging implications".

"The tradition that British academia has for cultivating international academic research and dissemination of knowledge is under attack from several fronts - xenophobic anxieties about migration and security among Home Office and consular officials is one of them," he said on his website.

The centre has been collaborating with the University of Fes in Morocco on research into the flow of contraband and its impact on youth culture in Morocco.

The project involved five postgraduate students and four supervisors. A long planned workshop to present the findings had been arranged for earlier this month.

All five Moroccan postgraduates were issued with letters of invitation stating that their travel and accommodation and subsistence costs would be covered. The centre even booked return tickets on their behalf.

Taieb Belghazi, a professor at the University of Rabat, Morocco, who set up the original collaboration, said that he had to endure an "ordeal" of many hours each time he wanted to visit the UK, despite being a visiting fellow of the OU.

He said: "The barriers to entering Britain - on national, ethnic and religious grounds, and justified by legalistic rhetoric - call into question the international dimension of the production of knowledge in British universities."

He added that the restrictions also made an "absurdity" of the UK's drive to recruit more international students.

Bekkaoui Khalid, the Moroccan students' supervisor, told The Times Higher :

"All of us, teachers and students, are deeply shocked and frustrated at this unjust and unexpected move. This is bound to have a negative effect on our perception of Britain and will affect our courses related to British culture and literature."

A spokeswoman for the Foreign Office, which is responsible for entry visas, said that it could not comment on individual cases but stressed that the Government took the concerns very seriously and was "fully aware of the crucial importance of academic visitors to the UK". She said that last year visas were issued to 2,170 academics and 195,000 students, most within 24 hours.

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