Over the past couple of decades, tens of thousands of students from (usually autocratic) Arab states have attended universities in Britain, America and other western countries. On a smaller scale, many western universities have also run all sorts of training and education programmes in these same states.
Does anyone seriously doubt that these encounters with democratic, open, education systems has not been a positive factor in helping to ferment the current revolt that is sweeping across the Arab world?
I have made this positive point in several BBC radio interviews over the past two days, against a tidal wave of criticism of the LSE.
But I think that, in that context, the resigning LSE Director Howard Davies was absolutely right to defend the LSEs educational work with Libyan public servants, of which I was briefly a part in June 2008. As long as these programmes are not censored by the regimes in question, their impact can only be to the good.
Of course, in the real world it is not as simple as that – those of us who have worked in non-democratic states like China or Libya know that there are always pressures to compromise and self-censor, something we always have to guard against.
Rather more complex is whether Universities should accept money to establish research centres and programmes – like, for example, the Said Business School at Oxford (funded by a Saudi arms dealer). Here the issues of complicity with dodgy regimes or individuals become much more acute and potentially morally dubious.
It is in this area that Howard Davies and the LSE tripped up, but I’m still not sure it really merited his resignation. After all, these links were encouraged and supported by the then British government. And those on the right now attacking Tony Blair for pursuing this diplomatic strategy should ask themselves – would Libya be revolting now if it hadn’t been opened up to all sorts of western influences? Perhaps they should reserve their indignation for a Prime Minister who trots around the Gulf selling arms in the middle of all this?
But on balance, engagement with education organised by western Universities has had a huge, positive, effect on the Arab world and is probably not an insignificant factor in the current uprising. We in the University sector should be much more aggressive in defending this record – especially against media empires run by family-based autocracies that bear stroking similarities to some Arab regimes I could mention.