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.

This article has 12 comments

  1. Andrew

    Hi Eric, are Dutch universities required to attest to the security implications of international students’ academic activities as a condition for these students being granted visas? I’m wondering if that’s a routine attestation or an exceptional one created for this case.

    I was working as an international student advisor for Columbia and NYU in the years preceding and following 9-11. Universities then, as they are now, were allowed to grant admission to whomever they wished; but consular offices were required to obtain security clearances for nationals of certain countries and/or for students in certain fields of study – and in many cases these clearances were on their face unlikely to be granted or took so long as to make admission a moot question. Effectively, this meant and continues to mean that certain students, even though granted admission by their respective universities, were nevertheless likely never to arrive due to visa denials. But this at least allowed the ethical debate to be ‘exported’ from the academic realm to the diplomatic service and security apparatus who were seen as responsible for making the ultimate decision to allow or not allow a student to enter. We in the international offices often wondered at the realism of some of the departments in admitting students that were unlikely to be allowed into the country, but at the same time if the departments are working on academic grounds, then we couldn’t not act on their decisions and provide the paperwork needed for the visa application even though we knew the visas were often not going to be forthcoming.

    If a student was granted a visa and allowed to enter the U.S., then the University had no role in policing a student’s activities (beyond reporting any kind of obviously criminal behavior) since it would be difficult to do so on both academic freedom and practical grounds.

    It’s interesting to see how different university systems are expected to shoulder different kinds of practical, and ethical, burdens.

  2. Eric

    I guess previously that was not an issue. As far as I know there were no formal regulations (but I might be wrong). Considering that ethics regulations and procedures are rather loose in the Dutch universities (compared at least to Australia and the US), I think that attesting the security implications used to be – and is – very much a decentralised responsibility, either of the professor or supervisor or the department.

    I think that universities don’t have to give any security clearances to the visa-issuing authorities, except of course now for Iranian students (and probably for students from some other countries, like North Korea). This is indeed one of the points of critique. With the guarantee that the ministries are demanding the responsibility has shifted from the Dutch Intellegence/Security Service to the Universities.

    You mention that “in many cases these clearances were on their face unlikely to be granted”. The question is whether the universities have a role in this decision. This does not seem the case in your experience, but it now is the case in this recent Dutch policy.

  3. Majid

    Dear Sir or Madam,

    Happy New Year. I am student of Shahid Chamran University in the field of clinical psychology with M. A. degree from Iran. I want to continue my education in this field. Would you please guide me…How can I get fund scholarship for PhD there? What should I do? I don’t have TOEFL but I got 57 at MCHE (An Asian English Language Examination) recently (2008). I will get TOEFL or IELTS in 5-6 months till now. I wrote two proposals in my two favorite fields for Ph. D: Neuropsychology (The comparison of impulsivity in responsive and non-responsive Obsessive-Compulsive patients to SSRI’s.), and family/couple therapy (The effect of sexual education on Sexual myths and sexual satisfaction in couples). I have one ISI article and one international article (Malaya congress, 2007). Also, I have 2 original and one review articles in some famous scientific Persian printed journals in Iran. I have 2 certificates (Clinical Cognitive-Behavioral Group Therapy, and Clinical Hypnotherapy) from Iranian Psychological Association (2008), and Iranian Clinical Hypnotherapy Association (2008). I did practical psychotherapy (Individual, Couple, Family, & Hypnotherapy) at Dr. Alavi Fazel’s (Psychiatrist and Hypnotherapist- Jondi Shapoor University, Ahwaz, Iran) clinic for 2 years.

    Sincerely yours,

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