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Who Pays the Bills at British Universities?

The Centre for Social Cohesion, a British think-tank led by Douglas Murray, has just published a report by Robin Simcox, on “A Degree of Influence: The Funding of Strategically Important Subjects in UK Universities.”  Anyone who is interested in the independence of higher education in the West should read it carefully.

The report makes the invaluable points that, first, the secrecy of foreign donations to British universities is cause for concern, and, second, the donations are large, frequently appear to be given for political reasons, and come predominantly from the Middle East and China.

The bulk of the report is a careful itemization of what is known, and what is not known, about foreign donations to leading British universities to support the study of subjects the government has designated as strategically important — which include the Middle East and China.  While donations from the Middle East tend to draw more attention and controversy, the evidence Simcox presents suggests tha the Chinese support of “Confucius Institutes” is better coordinated and more blatantly biased.

Simcox concludes that “universities are placing their objectivity at risk by accepting huge financial donations without putting in place safeguards to ensure that they retain their neutrality,” and that their pursuit of these donations from politically repressive states is inconsistent with their professed support for human rights.

The report’s recommendation of greater openness about past and present agreements is eminently sensible, though there is little if any chance that universities will adopt it, simply because it would cost them money.  Of course, that reluctance is always a one-way street: no university could get away with accepting a donation from a right-wing authoritarian regime, but they never hesitate to take money from far worse places with which the left wants to “engage.”

From my own knowledge, Simcox is, if anything, understating the case.  As one friend who was offered a position in South East Asian studies at a leading British university told me, he was informed that part of his job there would be to ingratiate the university with visiting foreign dignitaries, so as to keep their governments on board for future donations.  That was not a job he wanted, so he turned down the offer.

Undoubtedly, others will be quite willing to take on the job of academic glad-hander in chief to dictators.  Absent serious and lasting engagement by alumni, there is nothing at all to prevent many more of those positions from being created.



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