Visa veto makes bad impression

July 21, 1995

Last week, in an airy lecture theatre at a university in the South West of England, a gathering of experts on the Gulf region was deprived of the opportunity to listen to a colleague speaking from his direct knowledge of conditions in Iraqi universities under the oppressive hand of Saddam Hussein. The hallowed principle of free movement across international borders for the purposes of scholarship had been breached.

For the missing speaker was an Iraqi expert in literary criticism, Ali Allaq, who has joined many thousands of other professionals in exile in the Republic of Yemen. In a free country such as Britain propagation of unpopular views may - despite the law - put academics' jobs at risk. The price for criticism of regimes such as that in Iraq can be life.

Ali Allaq was prepared to take that risk. The awful irony is that he was prevented not by the Iraqis, who had the most to lose, but, it seems, by the British Government, which in crude propaganda terms had the most to gain.

Neither the Home nor the Foreign Office are prepared to comment on Dr Ali's case as a matter of established policy. So we do not know whether the failure to issue a visa, requested in good time and supported by a letter from the university stating unambiguously that his sole purpose of visiting the UK was to address the seminar, was an undeclared policy decision or an administrative cock-up. The Home Office says simply that all visa applications are determined on their merits.

Whatever the reason, the impression has been given, particularly with Home Secretary, Michael Howard, out in pursuit of illegal immigrants, that the Government is keen to discourage foreigners from coming here. Suspicious minds will wonder whether visa departments have been instructed to find ways of saying no.

Any impression that the Government intends to inhibit academic mobility must be expunged. The Government departments concerned must clarify failure to issue a visa to Dr Ali does not imply a wish to constrain academic debate on this - or any other - issue nor to stop people coming here to lecture or to take jobs.

Britain has an international reputation for academic freedom. Furthermore, with our universities in better shape than many round the world, we have an international reputation for higher education in general. We are able to attract talented academics from abroad both for brief visits and for longer term appointments. It would be most shortsighted if a Government with its eyes on the electoral advantages of little-Englandism were inadvertently to jeopardise our universities' reputation and international competitiveness by blocking academic mobility.

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