The union that represents Algonquin College faculty says the Ottawa school made a poor choice when it chose to locate its largest overseas extension campus in the Saudi city of Jazan.
“We're in a country that does not share any of our core values,” said professor Jack Wilson. “ At Algonquin we pride ourselves on caring, integrity and respect, and I don't see any of that in the regime of Saudi Arabia whatsoever.”
Wilson, who is vice-president of the faculty union local (OPSEU 415), says an incident in May brought home to faculty just how distant Saudi Arabia is from western mores. Five Yemeni nationals accused of robbing and murdering a Saudi citizen were beheaded in the city. Their headless bodies were then put on display, suspended between two cranes in front of the University of Jazan.
“Now that's not the same campus that's associated with Algonquin,” said Wilson, “ but it's not far away. In any country where they have such a public disdain for what I consider human decency, I just don't understand why we're there.”
College has been active in Saudi Arabia for 4 years
Algonquin has been working for the past four years in Saudi Arabia, providing educational services through an outside company. In that time it has trained several hundred Saudi male students in electrical engineering or industrial millwright technology, as well as teaching them basic English skills.
This year Algonquin has taken control of the 850-student technical college campus where it had been teaching and made it formally part of the college, where two-year diploma courses will be offered under the Algonquin College name. Algonquin said it hopes to expand the number of diploma courses available to Saudi students in Jazan.
Algonquin already has partnerships with colleges in China, Kuwait, Montenegro and India, but its Saudi venture is its biggest to date.
Wilson said he understands the need for new sources of revenue, but that there are many other places that are “more deserving”.
“If you look on almost any indicator of human rights, Saudi Arabia is, if not at the bottom, near the bottom. It’s the only country I know where women are not even allowed to drive a car.”
The union says that Saudi Arabia’s discrimination against women, which it describes as “gender apartheid”, makes it particularly galling that co-educational Algonquin College agreed to open a male-only campus extension in Jazan.
College applied, unsuccessfully, to open women's college
But Algonquin College said it also sought permission to operate a female campus.
“We applied for both a women's college and a men's college,” says Claude Brulé, Algonquin’s vice-president, Academic. “But we were not, unfortunately, successful in securing the rights to operate the women's college.”
Brulé says Algonquin intends to keep trying. He said the college believes Saudi Arabia is improving and is serious about women’s education.
“We at the college have chosen engagement over isolation”, says Brulé. He says recent years have seen an influx of western educational institutions in Saudi Arabia.
“We continue to be hopeful that these kind of initiatives will generate the kind of change that we all hope to see.”