Leading British universities have been accused of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in Egypt in pursuit of opening campuses under the country’s authoritarian regime.

More than 200 prominent academics and others in the UK university sector have signed a letter to the Guardian opposing the collaboration against the backdrop of unanswered questions about the abduction and murder of the Cambridge PhD student .

The letter writers also highlight wider concerns about academic freedom, the welfare of LGBT staff, and the trend towards what they say is a marketisation of higher education.

The British government and the advocacy group Universities UK are promoting partnerships between British higher education institutions and their Egyptian counterparts.

A series of memorandum of understanding (MoU) agreements and talks have opened up the possibility of British bodies establishing international branch campuses and what “partnerships, collaborative research, student and staff exchange programmes, joint funding applications, and capacity building”.

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Opposition to the plans follows a high-profile delegation to Cairo in June by 11 UK universities, supported by the British government.

The British academics write in their protest letter: “We question the wisdom and legitimacy of this move to do business-as-usual with an authoritarian regime that systematically attacks research, education and academic freedom.”

One of the institutions at the forefront of moves towards deepening links with Egypt, which is the fifth-largest host country for UK transnational education, is the University of Liverpool, which signed an MoU with Egyptian authorities. It opened up options for collaboration on joint research, “academic staff and student mobility and the potential to develop an international branch campus in Egypt in the future”.


Signatories to the protest letter include Jo McNeill, president of University of Liverpool University and College Union, along with a range of staff at tertiary institutions.

They cast doubt on whether universities represented by a recent Universities UK delegation to Egypt could guarantee the safety of academic staff called on to work in Egypt or of students participating in exchanges.

Regeni was abducted, tortured and then murdered while doing research in Cairo two years ago. Friends and rights campaigners believe he was almost certainly killed by the Egyptian security services.

Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International, said: “The troubling and unresolved murder of the Cambridge University research student Giulio Regeni has been raised on numerous occasions with various representatives of the Egyptian government, including the minister for higher education and Egyptian ambassador to the UK. The case was raised again during the recent delegation of UK university leaders to Egypt.

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“The freedom that academics have to conduct their work without state or political interference is fundamentally important to UK universities and, we believe, an essential ingredient in excellent teaching and research. UK universities can contribute to the promotion of these values internationally in terms of sharing knowledge, encouraging debate and championing academic freedom.

“It is important that UK universities continue to engage internationally in education and research. Universities UK regularly reviews its partnerships with overseas entities and seeks advice from its board in the light of changing political and social circumstances.”

A spokesperson for the University of Liverpool said: “The [university] is committed to global engagement, which we believe is fundamental to furthering education and research. Higher education has a vital role to play in upholding and progressing rights and academic freedom and these matters were discussed during the visit to Egypt.”

The signatories to the protest letter also claim that partnerships with Egypt could have serious implications for staff and students in the UK, as part of a broader trend to marketisation in higher education. They note that the University of Liverpool – whose vice-chancellor, Dame Janet Beer, is also president of Universities UK – had been planning for as many as 220 redundancies at the same time as moving to open international campuses.

A spokesperson at the University of Liverpool said that it “ran a time-limited voluntary severance scheme earlier this year in order to achieve a step-change in the overall quality of our research and education”. The scheme had now close

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