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Retreat From Saudi Arabia

Ontario college cites financial reasons in withdrawing from its male-only campus in Saudi Arabia, but others, citing human rights grounds, question the original decision to be there.

August 17, 2016
 

Algonquin College, a community college in Ontario, is withdrawing from Saudi Arabia. The college plans to transfer control of its male-only campus in Jazan, a city close to the Yemeni border, to its Saudi partner.

“After more than a year of negotiation, we were unable to come to an agreement that would have met our financial objectives,” Algonquin’s president, Cheryl Jensen, said in a news release. “We have said from the beginning that the Jazan campus must be financially viable for us to continue operating.”

Documents from a December Board of Governors meeting show that Algonquin’s Saudi campus had a net loss of about 1.49 million Canadian dollars (about $1.16 million in U.S. currency) for the fiscal year ending Aug. 31. Algonquin, which is only three years into a five-year contract to operate the Jazan campus, expects the cost of transferring operations to its Saudi partner to be approximately 4.3 million Canadian dollars (about $3.3 million).

Though the public college’s stated reasons for withdrawing from Saudi Arabia are financial, Algonquin’s faculty union had previously raised concerns about the campus in Jazan on human rights grounds. An Ottawa Citizen editorial published Monday argued that Algonquin was leaving Saudi Arabia for the wrong reasons, and that the government’s “gross human rights record” and its treatment of women should have played a role in its decision.

Jack Wilson, a communications professor and the first vice president of the faculty union, agreed with the Citizen’s analysis. “We’ve never thought they should have been there for the reason that they cited, which was for profit. They should have considered human rights before they ever entertained the idea of being in Saudi Arabia in the first place,” he said.

“Even if they had been profitable, we wouldn’t have been happy with them being present” there, Wilson continued. “The fact that they’re leaving, we are glad. Unfortunately the losses that we’ve taken financially are probably only the beginning.”

Algonquin is losing money on a campus that administrators expected to be highly lucrative. The original news release announcing the campus in Jazan projected that it would eventually generate more than $25 million in annual revenues and enroll 2,000 students across various technical and business-oriented programs. The campus opened in fall 2013 with three initial programs: a foundation year program focused on English language and study skills, and programs to train electrical engineering and mechanical technicians.

Algonquin won a bid to operate the college in Jazan as part of the Saudi government-supported Colleges of Excellence initiative, which imports foreign providers to the country to offer vocational education and training. The campus in Jazan is restricted to men, in keeping with norms of gender segregation in Saudi education -- but not, as opponents of the campus would point out, in keeping with norms in Canadian public education. Algonquin’s bid to operate a women-only college was unsuccessful, though a report submitted to the board shows that Algonquin administrators were considering the possibility of opening a women's campus in Saudi Arabia as recently as June.

This despite the fact that the campus in Jazan has been troubled from the start. Algonquin, which also operates a campus in Kuwait, has struggled in Saudi Arabia with challenges related to student preparedness and attrition. “Over the course of the past two years, it has become clear that the students applying to AC-Jazan do not have the academic and social preparedness for which our academic programs were contractually designed,” a business plan for the Jazan campus presented to the board in December states.

The document states that while retention rates for the foundation year program have improved, “retention continues to be a significant challenge with more than 50 percent of students leaving the college by the end of the second trimester.”

An Algonquin spokeswoman declined Inside Higher Ed’s requests for an interview, saying that administrators are not granting interviews while they negotiate the terms of the college’s exit. She referred Inside Higher Ed’s reporter to Algonquin’s news release, which quotes Doug Wotherspoon, the vice president for international and strategic planning. “Our goal is to work with Colleges of Excellence to ensure a smooth transition,” Wotherspoon said. “We want to provide Colleges of Excellence time to accommodate students’ needs before we fully withdraw from the campus.”

The press release did not offer any further details about what those accommodations will entail. The fall semester is due to start Sept. 18.

The news release makes no mention of concerns raised by faculty members about human rights issues in Saudi Arabia and the issue of gender segregation specifically.

Earlier this summer, the executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, David Robinson, sent a letter to Algonquin’s president expressing serious concerns about its decision “to operate in a repressive country known for its severe clampdown on freedom of expression, mass executions and gender-based discrimination and violence.” Robinson sent a nearly identical letter to the president of Niagara College Canada, which also operates a men-only campus in Saudi Arabia under the Colleges of Excellence initiative.

The letters warn that the CAUT's executive committee plans to recommend invoking the association's procedures to censure the administrations of the two colleges unless concerns it has about the Saudi campuses are resolved. Specifically, the letters fault the colleges for lending support to Saudi policies that discriminate against women by operating gender-segregated campuses. The letters also discuss the absence of respect for Canadian principles of academic freedom in Saudi Arabia.

"Universities and colleges by their very nature have for centuries encouraged academic internationalism starting with the wandering scholars of the Middle Ages," the letter states. "That is why we encourage students, researchers and faculty to mix and to collaborate with their counterparts in other countries and other continents. It is, however, important that universities and colleges ensure that this internationalism is conducted fairly and honestly and that it does not involve violations of human rights and academic freedom."

A spokeswoman for Niagara, Susan McConnell, defended the campus in Saudi Arabia, and said Niagara's operations there are profitable. "As we have said since the outset of our participation in the Colleges of Excellence program, we believe that it significantly enhances access to applied education in Saudi Arabia. While we acknowledge the cultural differences that exist between our countries we, like many other Western governments and organizations, have chosen a path of engagement rather than isolation, and we remain committed to the important work that we are doing there," McConnell said in a written statement.

Algonquin administrators have likewise held, both in a previous interview with Inside Higher Ed and in statements on the college's website, that engagement with other countries is preferable to a policy of isolation. In a video on the website in which she outlined this view, Jensen, the president, described "great meetings" she'd had with students and staff during a trip to the Jazan campus. "Yes, there's work to be done, but I feel confident that we are making a difference in that country. Students talk to me about the fact that Algonquin College is improving their future, and that's certainly something that is very important to me," she said.

Wilson, of Algonquin's faculty union, said Tuesday that the “college doesn't seem to have learned that human rights are very important to the citizens of Ontario. They would have earned much better PR if they’d said, ‘you know, we now have come to the realization that human rights are very important and we’re prepared to take the loss of several million dollars to withdraw.’”

“They just proved what was the real motivation to be there, which was money, and doing the right thing by the young people of Saudi Arabia was secondary,” Wilson said. “The poor students are now being left in a lurch.”

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