Institutions attack claims that Saudi and Chinese donors direct policy

Cambridge, Edinburgh and Soas insist that report has its facts wrong. Melanie Newman writes

April 9, 2009

Universities have challenged the factual accuracy of claims that institutions are allowing leaders of "despotic" regimes with dubious human-rights records to buy influence through cash donations.

A catalogue of financial donations from foreign governments to university subjects designated as "strategically important" by the UK Government was laid out last week in A Degree of Influence, a report by the Centre for Social Cohesion (CSC).

It says: "Universities have insufficient safeguards in place to prevent donations affecting the way universities are run. There is clear evidence that at some universities, choice of teaching materials, subject areas, the degrees offered, the recruitment of staff, the composition of advisory boards and even the selection of students are now subject to influence from donors."

The report says that the terms of agreements with foreign donors - and in some cases even the existence of the donations - are not transparent. And it states that some donations to Islamic studies centres have included clauses allowing the donor significant control.

It says that Prince Alwaleed, a Saudi prince who made a £16 million grant, was allowed to appoint members of the management committees at the Islamic studies centres at the universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh. "While the principal donor's intentions seem honourable, a precedent appears to have been set where wealthy donors can influence the running of an independent academic institution," the report says.

The report also claims that the Alwaleed Centre at the University of Cambridge has to submit two reports a year to the prince and that Cambridge can amend the regulations governing the centre only "by grace on the recommendation of the managers, subject to the approval of (the prince)".

At a discussion in Cambridge's Senate House in March 2008, Richard Bowring, a professor of Japanese studies, said the decision to give the centre independence from the usual faculties system was a reversal of policy. He said it was "depressing to see academic policy to be so openly revealed to be driven by financial considerations".

Cambridge has said that it would not be accountable to the prince and has insisted that its procedures for accepting donations are "thorough and transparent" to maintain its "independence and integrity".

The University of Edinburgh said in a statement that it "categorically denies any allegations that funders influence its research methods or outcomes or bias its teaching provision". It said that there were plans for three of 16 members of an advisory board for its Islamic centre to be nominated by the donor, the Kingdom Foundation, and stressed that the board's role was entirely advisory. The total £8 million gift is projected to create endowment income equivalent to 0.072 per cent of total income.

Edinburgh added that the CSC report appeared to have been "poorly researched" and had made "selective use of the available evidence", offering no substantiation "of the outcome of alleged influence on the operations of these centres at the university".

The CSC report also refers to a case in October 2008 in which the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) was said to have decided to remove an artist's work from an exhibition of contemporary Saudi Arabian art on the request of the event's sponsors. The CSC calls this a "blatant example" of donors being allowed "significant oversight" of a university's actions.

Robin Simcox, research fellow at CSC, said: "Our understanding from good sources was that the exhibit was taken down after the Saudi principal funder of the exhibition decided that the art was offensive and threatened to derail the exhibition unless it was removed."

Soas said in a statement only that: "The CSC report contains factually incorrect information regarding Soas. This was pointed out to them when they sent us their draft report several weeks ago. However, they have chosen to ignore our comments."

The CSC report also criticised the establishment of Confucius Institutes at UK universities because the universities are required to accept "operational guidance" from the Chinese Government. Edinburgh said that its annual income from the Chinese Government in support of the Confucius Institute was about £200,000, or 0.036 per cent of its total income.

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