Iranian students, international security & academic freedom

After 9/11 the number of international students in the US dropped considerably due stricter visa requirements and security regulations. Just now that the US is relaxing the regulations, the Netherlands seems to become more restrictive towards international students, at least those from specific countries.

My former university – the University of Twente – this week announced that they had rejected a number of Iranian students and that they will not be able to process new applications from Iranian students. Is the University of Twente (UT) getting paranoid? No! They are acting according to a United Nations resolution and a following decision by the Dutch Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They had requested universities to give a formal guarantee that the Iranian visa applicants do not have access to certain specific scientific knowledge (read: nuclear knowledge). UT’s president explained:

Students have the right to attend all courses and they should be able to develop freely. We don’t want to exclude students from education and therefore we cannot give the guarantee that the Ministries of Education and Foreign Affairs demand from us. (…) As a university we cannot exclude the possibility that Iranians will be exposed to nuclear knowledge. We can’t control that.

The firm stance (or paranoia?) of the Dutch government and their quick action on the UN Resolution is probably related to an event a couple of years ago. Abdul Qadeer Khan, a Pakistani scientist and developer of the country’s nuclear bomb confessed in 2004 that he had run an illicit global nuclear-proliferation network involving Libya, Iran and North Korea. Kahn had attended the University of Technology in Delft in the 1960s and worked at the Physical Dynamics Research Laboratory in Amsterdam, a subcontractor for URENCO, a Dutch uranium enrichment facility.

iran-nuclear-iaeaParanoia or justified caution? Whatever it is it raises some interesting questions. Wes Holleman of Education Ethics (in Dutch) asks whether an educational institution is allowed to restrict access to knowledge because of the risk that they will apply this knowledge for the wrong reasons. In cases where criminal intentions are clear this might be an easy question. But how to establish that wrong intentions are at play (think for instance about tax law)?

In considering these questions, he refers to two declarations of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP): the Joint statement on rights and freedoms of students (1967; 1992) and the Statement on graduate students (2000) mentioning issues such as discrimination on the basis of nationality, race and religion and the compliance of academic freedom. Since these norms are also clearly embedded in Dutch constitutional and educational law, Holleman concludes that:

Educational institutions should think twice before deciding not to admit students to their courses on the basis of their ‘evil’ nationality or their wrong intentions. From an ethical perspective they are walking on shaky ground and legally they might face judicial rulings against these decisions.

I agree with his conclusion, but nevertheless, the university’s decision is understandable. Obviously they cannot neglect the demands from the Ministries. They can either admit the students and ‘police’ them so they will not come in contact with ‘dangerous knowledge’, something which is of course sheer impossible and goes completely against the notion of academic freedom. Or they can decide not to accept any Iranian students, even if this goes against their ethics. And the government? Yes, they are acting rather promptly and maybe slightly shortsighted. Probably that’s because they want the avoid the embarrassment of a second Kahn case.

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