Once the protests stop, who will rebuild the Middle East?

British universities need to keep their doors open to Arab students, even if they come from authorit

As regimes in the Middle East are toppled and forced to adopt reformist policies, a question appears: should we play the waiting game or work with them to help them achieve the goals for reform their protesters now demand?

With more young Arabs in UK universities and professional training schools being "called back" by their governments, we have to ask ourselves: once the protests stop, where will the future political, business and societal leaders in the Middle East come from?

The Middle East is experiencing a youth bulge of a hundred million young people. Even though many of them are educated to university level, most have never been employed due to the woeful dearth of jobs and poor investment in their economies. Those who do have jobs are largely employed in the public sector, with its low productivity, cronyism and high salaries to keep the population "onside".

As more revelations emerge of UK universities accepting funds from autocratic Middle East governments – the London School of Economics being the most highlighted example – it is important not to tar all initiatives with the same brush.

Research centres in UK universities funded by Syria and Libya passed through university decision-making boards perhaps because they ticked the "we need to engage with them to help them reform" box (and possibly the "we need to find more external funding" box). These centres should have paid closer attention instead not to fall foul of the "avoid association with regimes with a record for human rights abuses" box.

However, the notion of training future leaders in the Middle East in leadership and management skills to undertake various jobs in their home countries is a sound one and worthy of greater focus by UK universities. This door must be kept open.

Indeed, many governments and organisations in the west do the same by supporting their high-fliers through management training programmes and funding their MBAs in the hope that one day they will take up senior roles in their organisations

These courses teach not only technical skills, but also the deeper normative values that underpin them. They also help create to global networks of professionals whom they can rely on for advice and guidance throughout their career.

This is especially true with regard to students who come from authoritarian regimes. Education exchange enables the participants to observe through professional and social interaction behaviour, norms and expectations within the country they are studying in – in our case, the democratic system and the interaction between government and citizen – which can directly influence their own expectations of their own government, leaders, institutions and wider civil society.

A recent paper by Carol Atkinson shows that students who have studied overseas return home with a positive view of their host country and often use the knowledge they have gained overseas to help improve their home country.

Reform is a long, often slow process. There is no way to ensure that the participants sent on overseas training courses are not government cronies from the existing or formerly established autocratic order; nor will ethical and economic trade-offs disappear as UK universities face budgetary pressures to become more entrepreneurial and self-standing.

Bucking these questions and shutting doors, however, is not a solution. We all have a long-term interest to help ensure that young people in the Middle East have the resources and opportunities necessary to secure the inclusive societies and economies they so passionately and impressively demand.

Getty
Show Hide image

How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.