English sector ‘won’t be open on foreign donations unless forced’

MP’s draft transparency law comes after failure to self-regulate against threats such as autocratic influence, says academic

一月 17, 2022
Protesters opposed to Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi demonstrate outside of the London School of Economics to illustrate English sector ‘won’t be open on foreign donations unless forced’
Source: Getty

Proposed legislation to force English universities into transparency on foreign donations, including those from authoritarian regimes, sends a message they must “get their house in order” after failing to self-regulate, according to an academic who helped develop the plans.

Conservative MP Jesse Norman has tabled in January a new clause to the government’s bill on free speech and academic freedom in higher education. It would require universities to disclose any gift, contract or other financial arrangement worth more than £50,000 with any “overseas counterparty”, by reporting these to the Office for Students and the secretary of state for education, for publication on a public register.

Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary, said that he would be “looking carefully at this proposed amendment”, arguing that “transparency is important if we are to ensure that academic freedom remains protected”.

John Heathershaw, professor of international relations at the University of Exeter, has worked with Mr Norman on the proposed legislation, having served on the Academic Freedom and Internationalisation Working Group of scholars.

“If you don’t have transparency over funding”, it is impossible to know the “source of the wealth” and whether it may be “influencing an agenda”, said Professor Heathershaw, who gave evidence to a 2019 Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry which called for action on “challenges posed by autocracies to UK universities”.

In 2011, an inquiry by Lord Woolf into the London School of Economics’ Libya links concluded that members of its council were not fully informed of fears that a £1.5 million donation from the Gaddafi regime might be funded by bribes paid by Western companies in return for Libyan contracts.

Last year, concerns were raised about a University of Oxford research centre studying Azerbaijan, founded by a £10 million donation from an undisclosed source, where the sister-in-law of Azerbaijan’s autocratic ruler sits on the centre’s board.

While the US publishes information on foreign donations and gifts to universities, and has enforced that fully in recent years, in the UK “ultimately everything [is] secret”, said Professor Heathershaw, who led the recent Global Integrity Anti-Corruption Evidence research programme, funded by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

And each UK university has different rules, with some having gift committees to examine donations, while others have “ad hoc senior management approval systems which are obviously beset with conflicts of interest”, creating a “patchy, quite poor system”, he argued.

After mostly unsuccessful attempts by the working group to engage with UK universities and encourage self-regulation, Professor Heathershaw has concluded “they will not be transparent unless the law requires them to do so”.

While he expected there will be “aspects of this that Universities UK, the Russell Group, aren’t massively happy about”, he will also be meeting with Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs to discuss the plan and believes it “could end up becoming law”.

“Even if it doesn’t become law it’s an extremely important message to send out to universities, that if you don’t get your house in order, government will eventually regulate you in this area,” he added.

Mr Norman, a former financial secretary to the Treasury, said the proposed legislation was “designed to improve the governance of institutions, by making it more transparent as to where money from overseas sources has come from”, and aimed at “protecting the reputation of British higher education, which is one of the absolute jewels in the crown of this country”.

A Russell Group spokesman said: “Nobody disagrees with the importance of a transparent system of funding that has the confidence of the public.”

But universities already have to comply with transparency requirements like the recent National Security and Investment Act, while the proposed amendment “seems to require the collection and reporting of data on everything from the personal financial circumstances of individual overseas students who are being supported by family members, to historic contractual data relating to major research partnerships, and everything in between”, which would impose “a significant reporting burden on universities”, he added.

“We are ready to work with government and parliamentarians to respond to their concerns, but we don’t believe the proposed amendment is the right approach,” the spokesman said.




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Reader's comments (1)

Overseas governments 'out-reach' and interference activities by buying influence to silence critics and curtail freedom of speech have been ongoing for years, this is going to aggravate many, the colluding universities as much as those that have bought undue influence.