The ruling by Donald Trump to place a temporary ban on Muslims from selected countries entering the USA has provoked global outrage. While a similar ban on students wanting to study in the UK seems (hopefully) inconceivable, when it comes to obtaining entry visas bona fide students and staff from Muslim countries can face an uphill struggle.
I speak from direct experience. In 2011 the University of Northampton set up a partnership with the University of Babylon in Southern Iraq. In the last five years we have graduated over 100 Iraqi students here in the UK, mostly in the subjects areas of computing and engineering. Last July alone we graduated 30 Babylon students in the presence of the Iraqi cultural attaché to the UK. But behind the scenes our partnership has not been without problems. Last year a dozen or so Iraqi staff and students from Babylon who had been scheduled to fly to the UK for a short training session where prevented entry, with UKVI quoting visa compliance issues. This sad story will be familiar to many working in UK universities but it is hard to underestimate the damage done not just reputationally but to the life chances of those individuals excluded, with no good reason, from following their dream of studying in Britain.
And to be frank we should be grateful that they still want to come. The disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq still leaves a bitter taste, despite the toppling of Saddam Hussein whose protective attitude towards state Universities made collaboration and partnership between overseas institutions difficult at best. True, it was harder to get visas under Saddam's oppressive rule. But now as part of the immigration process paperwork must first be submitted to Amman in Jordan where the authorities sometimes stop visas being issued to Iraqi nationals. And this is before arriving in the UK where overseas students and academic staff can and have been refused entry and sent back on the next plane.
Earlier this month I was a guest at the University of Babylon and privileged to see for myself the great work being done by students and staff to help rebuild the economy. There are 22 public and around 50 private universities in Iraq. Public education is free for students who meet government specified attainment thresholds. However, this excludes many that fall short of the required standards and left to pay for their education themselves. Meeting demand is one reason the government is actively supporting the growth in private universities. Another is that the fight against Daesh, combined with the low price of oil (Iraq is still a major oil producer with extensive reserves), is draining resources away from education and healthcare.
Nursing is a case in point. The county faces a shortfall in skilled healthcare workers and UK higher education has a role to play in helping plug the gap. Nursing was not always seen as a career choice for Iraqi women. But things have changed and at Babylon University's College of Nursing there are 900 students studying for qualifications. With 100% employability, nursing is now seen in as a good option for men and women. Support from UK and US universities through staff and student exchange would further accelerate skills development in this key area. It seems however The Donald has put a stop to that for one member of the Special Relationship, at least for the time being.
Another area where Iraqi universities need our help is in technology applied to education. Prior to 2003 the use of map-based software (GIS and GPS) was banned in universities unless first sanctioned by the state. This is no longer the case but in the shift from dictatorship to democracy Iraqi higher education is struggling to keep up with best practice in the West. Students have access now to social media including Facebook and Twitter. But universities themselves are falling behind the digital curve.
Many Iraqi academics told me how difficult it was to build collaborations in research and teaching when Saddam was in power. University life post 2003 held the promise of new-found levels of academic freedom and engagement with the wider world, including America. In part these hopes are now in tatters, at least in the short term, on a command from the White House infused with the familiarity of a regime the US fought hard to destroy.