Many UK universities have close academic relationships with non-democratic states. The reasons, often to do with income and helping states modernise their societies and infrastucture, are well-rehearsed. There's a story in the papers at the moment, though, where the compromises on academic freedom required by some institutions and people seems to be leading to terrible confusion.
Here's an article running in both The Conversation and The Independent. It's by John Nagle, a Reader in Sociology at Aberdeen University. Mr Nagle's worked in Abu Dhabi and says he isn't surprised about the arrest of Matthew Hedges, the Durham University PhD researcher who's been held in an Abu Dhabi jail for 6 months on spying charges.
The article runs through Nagle's own experience of the considerable constraints on academic freedom in Abu Dhabi, and contains this gem:
"I very quickly learned the limits of academic freedom. I would love to return".
A proper journalist might just play it for laughs and leave it at that. But there are serious points worth making, of which this is one.
States all spy on each other, and each one gets to decide what spying is. Just because a place has plenty of nice capital projects on the go doesn't mean it isn't broiling just under the surface. It's quite obvious that Hedges isn't a spy. But in general, if you go around asking questions about security and politics in a non-democratic and potentially unstable state, and you stray in any way off the path laid out to you by that country's officials, you might very well end up not just being accused of spying but actually spying.
This is something diplomats have to deal with a lot. People who aren't spies don't know what spying is. But in plenty of places in the world, having private meetings with people to discuss potentially sensitive matters then returning home and telling officials about what you've discovered can easily amount to spying. The BBC, The British Council, British people who say they're at some boring agency or other, people at your university with even oblique connections to the security services - to be frank, these are all amongst our intelligence and security services' sources and sometimes they are actually our intelligence and security services. Diplomats all know the line between 'legitimate' information gathering and spying is a fine one and also that it's in the eye of the beholder.
The many students from non-democratic states studying in the UK usually understand the ground rules vis a vis their home country. Generally, pretty much everyone benefits and there's honest goodwill on both sides and at all levels. But if you're supervising a thesis which involves a UK student asking sensitive questions in a difficult place, enormous care needs to be taken to ensure they don't come a cropper. This seems obvious but the confusion evident in the news suggests it's not as obvious as some might think.