Questions have been raised as to how Queen’s University can forge a relationship with a Saudi Arabian women’s university which enforces strict Islamic rules, while at the same time suspending links with a Presbyterian college on theological grounds.
In December Queen’s announced it was suspending links with the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s ministry training college, Union Theological College in Belfast (UTC), due to “concerns regarding the breadth and diversity of the teaching and curriculum”.
Queen’s announced a review of its links with the UTC in the wake of the Presbyterian Church voting last June to withhold membership from anyone in a same-sex relationship.
Questions are now being raised about QUB’s consistency after it came to light this week that while it was conducting a review of links with UTC, the university was also exploring links with Princess Nourah Bint Abdulraham University (PNU) in Saudi Arabia.
Based in Riyadh, it is the largest women’s university in the world, with 60,000 students.
However, Amnesty International said this week that QUB has questions to answer. Its Northern Ireland director, Patrick Corrigan, said there are “severe human rights issues and reputational issues at play for Queen’s”.
Saudi Arabia has a poor human rights record, including cracking down on women’s rights. Women were only allowed to drive for the first time in 2018 and other restrictions remain in place.
PNU’s 60,000 female students cannot leave the university without official permission. They are warned against having clothes, haircuts or earrings which do not comply with Islamic rules.
PNU rules warn female students about “non-commitment to general taste in dress or demeanour (short skirts, transparent clothes, short, men-like haircuts, and earrings in strange places) in a manner that does not comply to Islamic instructions, Saudi culture and PNU instructions”.
It is not known what other Islamic rules, if any, PNU might impose on students. However by comparison it is understood that UTC does not impose any rules on the movement of students or on their clothes, earrings or hair.
DUP MLA Christopher Stalford said that many people would now wonder if QUB should instigate a review of teaching at PNU.
“There have obviously been concerns raised about QUB’s partnership with Princess Nourah Bint Abdulraham University (PNU) in Saudi Arabia,” he said. “Whilst I have no particular issue with the university pursuing such links, it appears that Queen’s takes a much more benign view of helping students at PNU ‘progress to leadership positions in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’ than it does of the education provision at Union Theological College.
“The review panel initiated by Queens stated that ‘the undergraduate curriculum in theology, however diverse the subject matter is taught almost entirely from a particular theological and religious perspective’. Many might question whether Queen’s will raise any such queries about the teaching at PNU, or if it is only reserved for Union College.”
It is understood that UTC has still not been given a copy of the review report based on which QUB decided to suspend links with the college. It is also understood that UTC is still awaiting confirmation of whether or not it will be entitled to an appeals process.
QUB responded that it is an international university and, as with other institutions across the sector, engages with a range of partners across the world.
“Queen’s rigorously evaluates and reviews all potential and existing partnerships on an on-going basis to ensure they reflect the University’s commitment to having a positive impact on global society”, it said.
It has been in discussions with PNU for over a year regarding the potential delivery of a PhD Foundation Programme for the benefit of female staff members, it said. The programme would see five QUB academics training participants for the next stage in their academic career and progress to leadership positions in Saudi Arabia.
“QUB believes that the partnership would help support the progression of women in Saudi Arabia and therefore have a positive societal impact, with the possibility of a number of students from PNU enrolling at Queen’s in the future.”