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It's time for Ministers to investigate who's funding our Universities from abroad

by Paul Goodman

Screen shot 2011-03-03 at 23.14.43 In 2007, I tabled the following written question in Parliament for answer by the then Education Secretary, Alan Johnson -

"What research he has undertaken into to what degree university departments of (a) religious and (b) Islamic studies are funded from overseas sources; and if he will make a statement"

- and received the following answer from his junior Minister, Bill Rammell -

"We do not collect data on overseas funding at the level of individual university departments. Data is collected through the Higher Education Statistics Agency on income from overseas sources but not below the level of individual institutions. In 2003/04 (the latest year for which we have detailed figures), the total income across the sector in England from non-EU overseas sources was £125 million from Research Grants and Contracts and £55 million from Other Services Rendered."

I dug out this question-and-answer yesterday evening on hearing of the resignation of Howard Davies, the director of the LSE, over the money-from-Gaddafi scandal, which Rammell's successor as MP for Harlow, Robert Halfon, has been writing about on this site (see here and here).

Readers will see why at once.  The last Government had no interest in establishing what projects, facilities or courses were being financed in individual University departments from abroaf.  Rammell's answer was the Departmental equivalent of two fingers.

This complacency was totally incompatible with Labour's declared vigilance against extremism.  And it was a double complacency - because to that of Ministers we must add that of University Vice-Chancellors and Principals, whose response to the problem is all too often a modern-day Trahison des Clercs.

It's significant that David Cameron, whose speech to the Community Security Trust on Wednesday evening followed up the main themes of his recent Munich address, dwelt on problems in British Universities.  He referred specifically to extremist views and speakers on campus, but the challenges roam even wider.

In sum, the LSE scandal has blown the lid off the dodgy sources of some University funding.  The media's on to the scandal now - see Stephen Pollard's Telegraph piece today - and more details will doubtless emerge in due course.  Departments of Islamic studies are in an especially sensitive position.

None the less, their sources of money should be of concern, given the challenge of Isalmist extremism.  The Centre for Social Cohesion has published an entire report, A degree of influence, examining the funding of such departments and others.  It found -

  • Censorship of discussion of certain aspects of Islam in UK universities - referring in particular to St Antony’s College, Oxford and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).
  • The running of universities has been altered - reporting that the management committee at Islamic Studies centres at the universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh contained appointees picked by Prince Alwaleed, their principal donors.
  • A lack of academic objectivity - claiming that specialist teaching and research centres have been set up with a specific political agenda, referring specifically to the Al-Maktoum Institute, an independent institution which has its degrees validated by the University of Aberdeen, and Confucius Institutes, which are arms of the Chinese government.
  • Universities are being used as diplomatic arms of governments abroad - again naming Confucius Institutes, and pointing out that donations to the LSE from the Turkish government were also openly admitted to be in part political, in order to help their accession to the EU.
  • Financial reliance on donors from undemocratic governments - writing that the way funding has been structured means that often universities cannot run courses or even departments unless they continue to receive donations from abroad.
  • A subjective platform for donors - alleging that governments with poor justice records are given a platform at UK universities to highlight the advantages of their system of government, often coinciding with substantial donations. The CSC said that following a donation from Saudi Arabia, the King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud Lectures, "named in honour of the founder of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia", were established at Oxford.
  • A lack of transparency in donations - reporting that foreign donors are allowed to give large amounts of money anonymously, and universities are not obliged to publish their agreements. This practice is prevalent throughout UK universities.
  • A lack of accountability - claiming that academics have consistently raised concerns about the impact that donations from abroad could have on the running of universities, noting that these protests appear to have had minimal impact.
  • Some of the UK’s finest universities are taking money from some of the world’s worst dictatorships - writing that Iran, Saudi Arabia and China are significant contributors to UK institutions.

It's time for Ministers at the Business Department, who take their duties in this regard more seriously than their Labour predecessors, to launch a general enquiry into the funding of Universities from abroad.  And for Downing Street, in the aftermath of the Munich speech, to ensure that countering extremism in Universities is an essential part of the new Prevent strategy.


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