Algonquin College should cut ties with Saudi Arabia campus: union

Days after Saudia Arabia executed 47 people on terrorism charges, the union representing academic employees at Algonquin College is urging the school to end the relationship with its campus in that country.

College has operated men-only campus in the city of Jazan since 2013

Algonquin College is being urged to close its Saudi Arabia campus after the country executed 47 people on Jan. 2. (CBC Ottawa)

The union representing academic staff at Algonquin College is calling on the school to sever ties with its Saudi Arabia campus after the country executed 47 prisoners convicted on terrorism charges four days ago.

"Some of them were executed for their peaceful exercise of disagreement with the regime," said Jack Wilson, a professor at the college and a vice-president of the faculty's union, on Wednesday.

"And we don't think it's appropriate for us to be doing business with a country that has such flagrant abuses of human rights." 

On Jan. 2, Saudi Arabia announced it had executed 47 prisoners convicted of terrorism charges, including al-Qaeda detainees and Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who had rallied protests against the government.

Algonquin College has been in control of an 850-student technical college campus in the Saudi Arabian city of Jazan since 2013, where it offers two-year diploma courses under the Algonquin name.

At the time, Algonquin announced the Jazan college would be home to 2,500 students and generate annual revenues of $25 million. 

"That has since been downgraded to a forecast of just over $4 million, so it's just a fraction of what they'd hoped to make," said Wilson.

Iranian demonstrators chant slogans during a protest denouncing the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent opposition Shia cleric in Saudi Arabia, in Tehran, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016. (Vahid Salemi/Associated Press)

In December 2015, the college's financial statements showed Algonquin had actually lost close to $1 million operating Jazan.

After those numbers were made public, Warren Thomas, the president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union — which includes faculty members at Algonquin — wrote to Premier Kathleen Wynne, questioning why "scarce tax dollars" were being used to help fund the Saudi Arabia campus. 

"That [loss] makes the situation even more reprehensible — that we're losing money in a country we shouldn't even be in in the first place," Wilson said on Wednesday.

"The college values are caring, integrity, learning and respect. And certainly three of those are not present in the Saudi regime."

Only men can enrol at the Jazan campus. Algonquin did seek permission to operate a separate campus for female students but was turned down by the Saudi government.

'I've seen a change'

Doug Wotherspoon, Algonquin's vice-president of international and strategic priorities, said he "deeply respected" the opinions of people who think the college should get out of Saudi Arabia, but maintained that the Jazan campus was gradually making a difference.

"We just ran a marathon to raise money for a local charity. We have a reading program in high schools and in elementary schools," Wotherspoon said on Wednesday afternoon on CBC Ottawa's All In a Day.

Listen to the full interview below.

In the wake of the execution of 47 prisoners in Saudi Arabia, the union representing instructors at Algonquin College is renewing its call for the closure of the College's campus there. A VP from Algonquin joined All in a Day. 9:11

"In our opinion, globally, we think education and getting involved with communities that really want to transform their education system is the route to go."

Wotherspoon said the college budgeted to lose money at the Jazan campus in 2015 and that Algonquin has no plans to cease operating there

"We have a five-year contract. We'll have to make some decisions at the end of this contract. But we're committed to this."

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