Freedom of Information request reveals five-year high in donations made to University

By Ben Sladden

  • Freedom of Information (FOI) requests shed light on the sources of donations to Durham over the past five financial years, in a year in which donations to British universities have hit £1 billion for the first time.
  • The University cites a reluctance to place the names of donors to the University in the public domain in response to our request, despite annually releasing an 18-page report of the names of benefactors to the University on the Durham alumni website.
  • The latest donor report reveals that Durham has received financial support from a Kuwaiti sheikh and former prime minister who was required to stand down in 2011 due to corruption charges.

An atmosphere of optimism shrouds Durham University as the academic year draws to a close.

The University has launched its £700 million investment programme and, with ambitious infrastructural plans, the face of Durham – a city that has grown in conjunction with the University since its humble foundations were laid in 1832 – will change significantly. For a University with such ambition, fresh investment is essential.

Palatinate can reveal that donations to the University are at a five-year high as donors reach generously into their wallets and purses to fill the University coffers.

Information obtained through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request has shed light on a number of donations endowed to the University from the financial year beginning 2012 to the end of May 2017.

This wealth reportedly comes from sources ranging from charitable trusts and foundations, commercial companies, to individuals – many of whom are alumni of the University. Alumni have been the most generous sources of financial support, bequeathing more than £15 million over the last five years.

The University in the 2016/17 financial year thus far has received two donations over £1 million. One donation in the sum of £3 million came from a single individual intended for infrastructural purposes.A number of anonymous donations, however, is on a downward trajectory peaking in 2012/13, making up over 15

The number of anonymous donations, however, is on a downward trajectory as it peaked in 2012/13.

In the five years that our FOI request highlighted, zero donations were rejected by the University.

The University has abstained from revealing the specific names of top donors, regardless of whether or not they had donated under terms of anonymity.

In response to our request, the University’s Information Governance Officer, Elaine Richardson, said: “We believe that disclosure of the information would prejudice the commercial interests of Durham University itself. The University’s ability to raise funds from private sources depends on cultivating and sustaining good relationships with donors.

“Donors would not reasonably expect the University to place information about them and their donations in the public domain and, in fact, many donations are made with explicit instructions regarding anonymity.

“As such, the University believes that by breaching current donors’ expectations of privacy and confidentiality and deterring prospective donors from giving to the University in the future, it would suffer commercial detriment.”

Despite citing a reluctance to put information about donors into the public sphere, the University annually releases a “donor roll” – a public document listing the names of benefactors to the University – on its alumni website. The latest roll is a hefty 18 pages long in total, listing a staggering total of 1,858 donors and/or sponsors. The names listed range from commercial companies, to charitable foundations, religious groups, and even memorial funds, with generous alumni bequeathing funds to Durham through their wills.

One name listed on the roll is the controversial former Kuwaiti prime minister Sheikh Nasser Al-Sabah who stepped down from power in the Middle Eastern sheikhdom following corruption charges during the height of Arab Spring tensions in the Middle East.

The list consists mainly of individual donors, but is punctuated by well-known names, such as the banks RBS and Santander UK, as well as other financial companies. The natural resources companies British Petroleum (BP) and Danish Oil & Natural Gas (DONG) Energy UK are also listed as benefactors.

One name listed on the roll is the controversial former Kuwaiti prime minister Sheikh Nasser Al-Sabah who stepped down from power in the Middle Eastern sheikhdom following corruption charges during the height of Arab Spring tensions in the Middle East. The Kuwaiti Sheikh, whose son attended Durham, has over the years endowed large sums of money to the University – previously offering a gift of £2.5 million. The University currently keeps an academic Chair in his name.

British universities have come under fire in recent years for the ease with which they have accepted foreign donations. Palatinate earlier this year revealed that a centre for Russian culture in Durham was sponsored with a £85,000 donation from a government-funded foundation described as a “propaganda” arm of the Russian state; this came in the midst of heightened tensions between the West and Russia, with accusations of Russian meddling in the electoral processes of Western nations.

In a similar vein, controversy emerged earlier this year when it was revealed that the name sake of Durham’s School of Government, a ruling family of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), had been ousted as embroiled in accusations of human rights abuses in the Arab state.

Separate FOI requests available in the public domain have shown that from 2001-2015, Durham received over £4.2 million in donations from Middle Eastern nationals and non-governmental organisations; around half of these donations were made to courses with significant Oriental Studies, Islamic Studies, or Jewish Studies elements.

The upward surge in donations is a trend that is being bucked nationally; in 2016 for the first time, donations to universities across the country hit £1 billion in a “growth in US-style philanthropy”.

The latest Ross-CASE survey of higher education revealed an increase of 23 per cent in a year in donations across 110 British universities. £35.5 million in philanthropic gifts were endowed to Russell Group universities.

The Times listed Durham amongst Oxford, Cambridge and Warwick as universities graced with “benefactors with deep pockets”, citing the 2014 donation by the Ogden Trust which gifted £3.35 million to open the Centre for Fundamental Physics, which stands on South Road.

“The donations we receive are used to support the University’s Strategy which focuses on the key areas of world-leading research, excellent teaching and a wider student experience that is second to none.

Donations to Durham remain impressive, but unsurprisingly paled in comparison to Oxbridge, whose financial endowments are in the billions – the only British Donations to Durham remain impressive, but unsurprisingly paled in comparison to Oxbridge, whose financial endowments are in the billions – the only British universities able to boast this.

The University of Oxford has received astonishing lumpsum donations: recently the university received a £75 million donation for the establishment of a school of government, bequeathed by Leonard Blavatinik – a USSR-born billionaire oligarch.

In the North East, Chronicle Live has shown that Durham has dominated its regional rivals in terms of financial donations, showing a huge wealth gap compared to its regional neighbours Newcastle, Sunderland and Northumbria. The last of which received donations 122 times less than Durham.

In a statement to Palatinate Jane Robinson, Chief Operating Office, said:

“The donations we receive are used to support the University’s Strategy which focuses on the key areas of world-leading research, excellent teaching and a wider student experience that is second to none.

“Over the last ten years, the generosity of our donors has supported a range of projects such as the establishment of new buildings and academic programmes of study, the redevelopment of Palace Green Library, the establishment of new or improved research facilities, student scholarships, and helping to build a fund to enable every student the opportunity to access the many experiences and opportunities that being a Durham student provides.”

Photograph: Durham University

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