Donations from dictatorships: are universities to blame?

By Natasha Livingstone

A recent investigation by The Telegraph has found that a number of UK universities, including Durham, have been accepting endowments from dictatorships with poor human rights records. Despite being condemned by a number of MPs, including Conservative Robert Halfon, the government must recognise that British universities are merely following in the state’s unethical footsteps.

The scandal involves Oxbridge, Durham, Exeter, and many other Russell Group Universities. Last year, Oxford accepted £3m from the Qatar Development Fund to finance their Thatcher Scholarships. Qatar is part of the Saudi-Arabian led coalition in Yemen that frequently breaches international humanitarian law by killing civilians and destroying their homes. With this in mind, one must question why universities would need such grants, and how they then justify accepting them. Funding cuts to higher education in 2012 have meant that institutions are struggling to get the necessary investment to compete internationally. The government has set the unethical precedent by continuing to sell arms to Saudi Arabia. As such, universities can easily negate any of the moral uneasiness that comes with such endowments, regardless of their origin.

As students well know, the Conservatives slashed state funding for further education in 2012. Consequently, only 26% of income for universities came from the government in the academic year 2014-15, whilst 44% was accrued from tuition fees and 1% from endowments. This reduction in government finance has generated accusations that higher education has become commodified. Many believe that learning is now a product that can be bought and sold for profit. Though most institutions retain their charitable status, the University of Law is one example of a new, profit-driven company.

The state’s drive to commodify and privatise higher education raises two concerns: one of satisfaction, and one of ethics. If university funding increasingly comes from endowments and businesses, investors (rather than students) may take precedence. More relevant is the suggestion that the push towards privatisation encourages immorality. Hefty tuition fees are justified by prioritising profit economics over ethics. The result: access to education is restricted and social mobility stagnates.

But the negation of conscience does not stop there. Universities are encouraged to seek finance externally, with few restrictions. Institutions like Durham can disregard principles and accept the highest bidder. This is the accusation that has been levelled by Halfon. He claims universities should only accept endowments from “democratic countries as opposed to dictatorships or countries with questionable human rights records”.

Yet Chris Higgins, retired Vice-Chancellor of Durham University, does not agree. For Higgins, unethical gifts are only concerning if they compromise academic independence. This is an additional problem. Most endowments given to universities fund institutions related to the donor’s religion or country. For example, Cambridge University accepted £8m from Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal to fund an Islamic centre in his name. The question for academics is whether such donors will influence the research they fund. It is hard to believe that a Saudi Prince, whose government so strictly enforces Sharia law, would happily finance research critical of Sunni Islam. However much Higgins may protest that such donations come with ‘no strings attached’, one cannot help but wonder whether the influence exerted by such figures is really only financial.

Higgins has similarly boasted that intellectual integrity and internal legislation will ensure academic independence, so that ‘even those [endowments] challenged as ethically unsound by a vocal minority will not prove too disruptive or distracting’. Depressing, but unsurprising, as such negation of morality is a trend the government itself has been advocating. Motivated by profit, the current administration won a court case in July to continue arms sales to Saudi Arabia. This is despite information from Amnesty International that British weapons have been used in war crimes against Yemeni civilians. By prioritising revenue over ethics and cutting university funding, the government has created an environment that encourages the acceptance of grants from unethical sources.

It is necessary, at times, for governments and businesses to trade with countries with whom they disagree politically. Yet such trade (except, seemingly, arms deals for oil) is regulated by political ethics. When Russia invaded the Crimea, trade embargoes were placed on the aggressor. Yet ‘donations’ are not under the same restrictions. One could argue that universities do not trade with dictatorships, rather they receive ‘philanthropy’. However, an endowment is a trade of sorts. The donor gives the money in exchange for a product. Receiving donations is not a passive process and has to be scrutinised.

By accepting such philanthropy, educational institutions also demonstrate an ideological acceptance of the donor. Higgins claimed Durham university was ‘proud to receive’ a £2.5 million endowment from Sheikh Nasser Al-Sabah, the prime minister of Kuwait, who resigned from government in 2011 following allegations of corruption. Higgins also defended Al-Sabah, claiming ‘the Kuwaiti democracy differs from ours’.

It is clearly immoral for universities to accept money from dictatorships. It is insulting to those who have been harmed under tyrannical rule. It says to students that abusing human rights is forgivable. Yet, by cutting university funding and lowering standards of ethics, it is the government that has pushed universities into this position and deserves the most blame.

Photograph: 401(K) via Flickr and Creative Commons 

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