Open University – Closed to Cubans

End the OU ban on Cuban students

One of Britain’s biggest educational institutions, The Open University, has a policy that bans Cuban students from studying there. The OU is citing US blockade laws as its justification. This discriminatory policy is unethical, not to mention illegal under UK equalities legislation, and CSC has launched a campaign to challenge it.

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By barring a student’s application based on their Cuban nationality, the OU is breaking anti-discrimination legislation laid down by the 2010 Equality Act. By complying with the extraterritorial aspects of the blockade, it is also in contravention of legislation which prevents British companies and organisations flouting UK laws in favour of US regulations.

CSC has written to the British government calling on them to intervene and force the OU to back down. We have asked them to invoke the powers enshrined in antidote legislation, the ‘Protection of Trading Interests Act’ passed in 1996, to protect British interests against any such US bullying. If the Open University refuses to abide by UK law then necessary action should be taken against them.

We need your help to make sure this happens.

The case has many similarities with that of the Hilton Hotel Group who used the same justification in its attempt to bar Cubans from their hotels in 2007.

In 2007, CSC led a huge campaign together with MPs, trade unions and supporters which forced the Hilton Hotel Group to back down on a similar ban on Cubans. We are confident that with your support, the Open University will reverse their discriminatory policy too.

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Background information

In early 2017 a Cuban student began an application to study for a PhD in Teaching English as a Second Language at the OU. The student had successfully completed an MA at the University of Westminster which has had links with Havana medical schools and universities and has welcomed 30 Cuban students to study on MA scholarships since 2002.

While OU lecturers running the PhD were happy for the student to apply, they were unaware that this was against OU policy until the student and their lecturer from Westminster were informed that this was against the university’s admissions policy.

Michelle Laufer, a lecturer who had taught the student at Westminster was shocked to be told that the OU ran a ‘Restricted Countries’ list which included Cuba. After contacting the Cuba Solidarity Campaign she asked the OU to provide further information about their policy.

In an email on 3 April, the Assistant Director of Academic Policy and Governance stated that list was due to “international economic sanctions and embargoes”, which meant that they would not register students from Cuba.

After being informed by CSC that there were no UK or European Union sanctions against Cuba, Michelle again contacted the OU to clarify exactly its position and which “sanctions and embargoes” it was referring to.

“I have worked with a number of students from Cuba who have studied successfully here in the UK at different universities and was keen to see if one of these students could continue their studies at the OU. I was therefore somewhat surprised at the OU policy particularly bearing in mind your stated aim of promoting educational opportunity and social justice,” she wrote.

On 24 April, Dawn Turpin, OU Acting Assistant Director, Academic Policy and Governance gave a damning explanation:

“The OU considers that it falls within the jurisdiction of US regulation with regard to economic embargoes. This is due to the fact that the OU has a number of employees who hold US citizenship (and are therefore subject to US regulation in this regard wherever they are in the world) and that the OU has other significant links with the US (notably using US financial systems).

“The OU is taking necessary precautions to meet with regulation and protect both itself and its employees. Those steps include the OU not trading with those countries impacted by what is often called US ‘comprehensive’ sanctions and embargoes (noting that the detailed applications of sanction regulation is different by country).

“These blocks in trading remain in place. The OU is seeking ‘Specific Licences’ from the US authorities (OFAC) and once received will consider further its policy and any changes. “

The ‘economic sanctions’ referred to by the OU, are those solely imposed by the United States against Cuba. Britain has no such sanctions. In fact it votes against the US blockade and its extraterritorial policies every year at the United Nations.

The Open University (OU) was set up in 1969 by Harold Wilson’s Labour government to increase access to further education. It has grown to become the biggest academic institution in Britain with more than 170,000 students this year – 7,000 of whom are from overseas.

The organisation’s decision to reject applications from Cuban students singles it out ignominiously from any other British educational establishment: none of whom refuse applications from Cuban students, as far as CSC is aware. It also flies in the face of their own mission statement: ‘to be open to people, places, methods and ideas.’

The OU website states “We promote educational opportunity and social justice by providing high-quality university education to all who wish to realise their ambitions and fulfil their potential.” But it is operating an admissions policy that is clearly discriminatory under the 2010 Equality Act which outlaws any discrimination on the grounds of race or nationality. The OU cite United States’ anti-Cuban blockade legislation as justification for their actions. In doing so the OU is placing the primacy of US legislation over and above the laws of the United Kingdom.

Ironically, at the same time that the Open University was justifying its bar on Cuban students, Cuban Dr Aurora Fernández, Cuba’s Vice Minister of Higher Education, was in London meeting Alan Duncan, Minister of State in the Foreign Office, to follow up on 2016’s Memorandum of Understanding signed by the two countries to ‘boost bilateral cooperation in higher education, research and teaching of English.’

Parliamentarians to challenge Open University discrimination

On 26 June CSC gave a briefing on the case to parliamentarians at an All Party Parliamentary Group on Cuba meeting in Westminster. Those present were shocked to discover the OU action and agreed to raise questions both in the Commons and the Lords.

The Cuba Solidarity Campaign has campaigned tirelessly against the extraterritorial impact of the US blockade on UK companies, individuals and organisations including Lloyds and Barclays banks. In 2007, CSC spearheaded a coalition of trade unions and parliamentarians in a campaign to end the discriminatory policies of Hilton Hotels. The hotel chain, like the Open University, tried to apply a universal ban against Cuban nationals staying in their hotels, citing the threat of fines from the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control as its justification. After a large number of trade unions and others including the entire Scottish Affairs Committee declared their boycott of Hilton Hotels, the hotel group in the UK eventually conceded defeat and acceded to overturning its own discriminatory ban.

Help end the Open University bar on Cuban students

Open University – Closed to Cubans

The Cuba Solidarity Campaign has launched a campaign to overturn the OU ban on Cuban students.

We have written to the British government to call on them to investigate the OU’s discriminatory policy and to make a clear statement against British organisations or companies complying with extra-territorial US blockade laws. We are calling on the British government to use the powers enshrined in its own ‘antidote’ law, the Protection of Trading Interests Order passed in 1996.

This law makes it possible for the British government to penalise companies in the UK that comply with the extraterritorial aspects of US law. Although it has never been used, the legislation is still in force and should be invoked to overturn the Open University’s admission policy if the organisation fails to respond to public pressure. We have also written to the Open University and asked education trade unions representing workers based there to write to them too.

Please take action today

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