The shame of Britain’s universities

LSE is far from the only university to accept money from repugnant regimes.

The links between the London School of Economics and the Gaddafi regime have damaged the university. Its talented director, Sir Howard Davies, has resigned, while a pall has been cast on the judgement of his predecessor, Anthony Giddens. A university once associated with the likes of Webb, Hayek and Shaw is now associated with accepting money from a tinpot Arab dictator. And unfortunately, LSE is far from the only British university willing to accept funding from morally dubious sources.

Top British universities regularly accept multimillion-pound donations from regimes with extremely poor human rights records, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. "Britain's best universities taking money from the world's worst governments is an established trend," says Robin Simcox, author of a 2009 report that looked into the links between British universities and governments with a poor record of human rights.

The report by Simcox, A Degree of Influence, published by the Centre for Social Cohesion, showed that over the past 30 years top British universities have accepted numerous donations of between £150,000 and £8m from organisations linked to autocratic regimes – and even the regimes themselves.

Since 1986, the University of Oxford and the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies have accepted a combined total of more than £105m in donations from sources such as the Saudi royal family, the Malaysian government and even the Bin Laden dynasty, among others. In 1997, the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies received £20m from the now-deceased King Fahd of Saudi Arabia.

In 2005 the university received £1.5m from the United Arab Emirates' Zayed Bin Sultan al-Nahayan Charitable and Humanitarian Foundation. Sheik Zayed's previous endeavours included establishing a think tank that, according to A Degree of Influence, published a report claiming that Zionists "were the people who killed the Jews in Europe". The University of Cambridge also received £1.2m from the Zayed foundation.

Elsewhere, the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) accepted a donation of £1m from King Fahd of Saudi Arabia to set up a chair of Islamic studies in 1995. Four years later, there was an outcry when the university accepted a donation of between £35,000 and £180,000 from the Iranian government. Cambridge, meanwhile, offers a studentship that is fully funded by the Iranian regime.

The reputations of Oxford, Cambridge and Soas, however, have not suffered in the past few weeks for a simple reason: unlike Libya, the morally repugnant regimes they accepted money from have yet to collapse in voilence.

LSE's reputation suffered not when it accepted the money, but when Gaddafi started massacring his own people in response to an uprising. Howard Davies knew the potential risks to the university's reputation when he accepted the money. The university was not cautious, it was greedy – and now its name lies in the gutter. A number of vice-chancellors will look at Davies, however, and think: "There but for the grace of God go I."

Saudi Arabia's abuse of human rights is well documented. If Saudi Arabia were to follow in Libya's footsteps and launch a bloody crackdown on a restless populace, Oxford and Soas would have a lot of explaining to do. The House of Saud, however, would only be exhibiting its continued contempt for human rights – a contempt that was clear when the British universities accepted the regime's money. It won't be just those in Riyadh hoping for the Arab uprising to stop short of Saudi borders.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.