The University of Cambridge is eyeing a £400 million partnership with the United Arab Emirates, despite leaked documents showing it fears the project may damage its reputation as well as undermine academic freedom.

The university said the joint venture will fund it to “develop innovative solutions that enable the transition away from fossil fuels” as well as study of arts, culture, education and entrepreneurship.

However, leaked documents, sent to the student newspaper Varsity, show the university acknowledged that there are significant risks associated with the project, including “reputation” and a “values gap” between the UK and UAE.

The documents said that “the potential burden such a large partnership could place on parts of the University and attendant mission drift”, as well as “academic freedom and institutional autonomy”.

They also said: “We [the University] are also fully aware that there will be questions relating to matters of human rights and environmental sustainability and stewardship in the UAE, especially in light of recent University decisions relating to engagement with certain state actors in the region, and with petroleum-based energy producers.”

These risks could “damage the University’s ability to fulfil its mission”, which is “to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence”.

The university is “fully aware of the UAE’s recent treatment of UK researchers and other visitors, which reflect a dramatically different cultural and legal context than that which may be familiar to our staff and students”, the documents said, adding that “sufficient support” will be put in place to ensure “staff are prepared” for their work in the UAE.

The case of Matthew Hedges

Matthew Hedges was arrested in the UAE in May 2018 while conducting research for his PhD at Durham University and charged with attempting to procure sensitive information.

In a videotaped confession that Mr Hedges later said was filmed under duress, the postgraduate student said he was a “captain in MI6”.

In a move that strained ties between the UK and the UAE, Mr Hedges was sentenced to life imprisonment in November 2018 before being pardoned soon after.

He has since filed a civil case in the UK against four UAE officials, claiming he was tortured after being falsely accused of spying in the country.

According to leaked documents, the proposed UAE-Cambridge Innovation Institute would be a 10-year collaboration between Cambridge University and “several educational, governmental, and corporate partners in the United Arab Emirates” with an approximate budget of £400 million.

Human rights concerns

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said it was “shameful” that Cambridge was considering entering into a partnership with the UAE.

“This is a clear case of a rich authoritarian state using its wealth in an attempt to launder its reputation,” she said. “It would be shameful if the University of Cambridge were willing to be used in this way.

“UCU members in other institutions have raised concerns about LGBT+ rights in UAE, and this deal looks especially problematic in light of the legal action which British academic Matthew Hedges is currently pursuing over alleged false imprisonment and torture.”

A University of Cambridge spokesman said: “This is an exciting and unique opportunity for world-leading collaborations on efforts to transform economies and societies.

“The potential partnership will help prepare education systems for a radically changing labour market, promote greater global understanding through appreciation for Islamic art and culture, and develop innovative technological solutions to the challenges facing our planet, helping the transition away from fossil fuels.”