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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Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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