Vice-chancellors are at loggerheads with cancer research chiefs after standing by Nottingham University's decision to accept funding from the British American Tobacco company.
Gordon McVie, director general of the Cancer Research Campaign, said he was keeping a "watching brief" on all universities' fundraising activities following Universities UK's support of Nottingham's acceptance of £3.8 million from BAT.
He told The THES that the CRC, which donates about £67 million a year to cancer research in British universities and £1.5 million a year to Nottingham, would have to review a joint protocol agreed with Universities UK (formerly the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals) on the ethics of tobacco industry sponsorship if other universities followed Nottingham's lead.
He condemned as "clever, but cynical" the use of a single paragraph in the protocol by Nottingham vice-chancellor Sir Colin Campbell to justify taking BAT cash to help fund a new International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility.
In a statement this week, Universities UK drew attention to the same paragraph, which states that the CRC will not provide research funding to any institution where CRC-supported staff are working in close proximity with others supported by tobacco industry money.
Sir Colin argued that Nottingham had followed this guideline because staff in the new centre, which is to be run by the university's business school, would not work alongside or share facilities with CRC-funded staff.
But Mr McVie pointed out another paragraph in the protocol that states: "Funding gives favourable publicity to a tobacco company or interest or promotes tobacco use or is likely to show, or be capable of showing, tobacco, tobacco use or the tobacco industry in a favourable light should be rejected."
He said Sir Colin was "sailing very close to the wind" in respect of this part of the protocol and warned he would be in clear breach of it should anything to do with the new centre carry the BAT name.
"I think Sir Colin's decision is cynical and the ethics are questionable. We would have welcomed a fuller debate among Nottingham's staff on this," he said.
A Nottingham University spokesman said there were "no strings" attached to the funding and that the centre would not carry the BAT name. It was still to be decided, however, whether there would be any BAT chairs.
Universities UK said universities were encouraged to raise funds independently, adding: "How they do it is a matter for each university, and there is already a long track record of universities negotiating with business for specific projects." A spokeswoman declined to comment on Mr McVie's criticisms.
David Triesman, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said it was "unfortunate" that funding had been accepted from a tobacco company, but added: "When universities are strapped for cash, you can see how this sort of thing can happen."
Sir Colin, however, told The THES that taking the BAT money had nothing to do with general levels of funding because Nottingham was financially secure. He added that "in doing so, we ensured we were keeping to national guidelines... in the protocol".
Mr McVie's critical voice was joined by other cancer research and anti-smoking charities.