A dissident Iraqi academic was prevented from delivering a devastating critique of universities under the Saddam Hussein regime because the Foreign Office failed to issue a visa in time for him to attend an international seminar in Britain.
Ali Allaq, a specialist in literary criticism, is teaching at the University of Sana'a in the Republic of Yemen. He was due to present a key paper, The Dialogue of Ink, Blood and Water: Modernity and Higher Education in Iraq, at last week's international symposium on higher education in the Gulf at Exeter University's Centre for Arab Gulf Studies.
The centre's director, Brian Pridham, said that the university wrote in support of his application for a visa and made clear that it was providing for his accommodation for the duration of the symposium and return travel to the Yemen.
A few days before the conference Dr Ali warned he had yet to receive a visa and asked Dr Pridham to intervene. A further supporting letter was urgently faxed to the British embassy in Sana'a but on the eve of the symposium organisers were told no visa had been issued and Dr Ali would not be able to attend.
"What has surprised me is that he was able to come last year on production of such a letter from the university but has not been able to come this year. It seems the sanctions screws are being applied more widely than before," Dr Pridham said.
"It is a shame academic considerations are being subordinated to political ones."
Neither the Home Office, which deals with visa policy issues, nor the Foreign Office which is responsible for visa administration overseas, was prepared to comment on the case.
A Home Office spokesman said that all applications from Iraqi nationals were considered on their merits.
Dr Ali, who studied for his PhD at Exeter before taking up appointments in Iraq, was able to send a paper for inclusion in the conference proceedings in which he paints a chilling picture of the power wielded by a state determined to tighten its ideological grip on every aspect of public life.
He wrote: "Universities became the platform for state ideology and education a means for promoting it. The students, the professors and the curriculum became the victims.
"The state has militarised the universities. According to instructions passed during the war, students and professors had to wear uniforms as long as they were on campus, and were subject to military training . . . Moreover, professors had to meet the same standards of physical fitness as those of soldiers or military officers; if not they were not tenured or promoted."
Loss of academics to the state bureaucracy or to exile has damaged higher education, Dr Ali said. "Several university departments are considering closing down due to a shortage in university cadres."
He added: "Universities were receptive to developments in applied sciences and technology. Professors are encouraged to develop their own research, especially if related to the arms industry, and students are sent abroad to acquire the most recent scientific methods and learn about new technological developments.
"This is far from the case as far as social sciences and the humanities are concerned.
"Following the policy set by the state for 'rewriting history' well-known poets and literary critics as well as influential poetic and cultural movements are excluded from the curriculum. Texts on historical revolutionary movements in Iraq, on sex, young boys or wine are taboo and are not to be selected as research topics by graduates."