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 decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era