Saudi cash sparks row

November 2, 2006

Oxford's £2m deal with Prince Sultan University has raised fears of inappropriate collaboration. Phil Baty reports.

Oxford University has been criticised for entering into an unprecedented academic collaboration agreement with Saudi Arabia's Prince Sultan University following a £2 million donation.

Critics told The Times Higher that the agreement, which has not been vetted or agreed by Oxford's governing council or its congregation of academics, could raise questions about the fairness of the university's admissions and lead Oxford into inappropriate academic collaborations as a simple quid pro quo for the donation.

A statement on the website of Prince Sultan University (PSU), which hails the historic deal, said the "academic co-operation agreement" with Oxford "identifies several specific actions in the fields of exchange of students and faculty members, research collaboration, course development and joint awards programmes".

An Oxford spokeswoman said that this claim "may need a bit of clarification" and insisted that the deal did "not oblige anyone to enter into any form of collaboration unless they wish to".

She insisted that all admissions would be absolutely fair and based on merit.

The university declined to show The Times Higher a copy of the full deal or explain in what way the PSU's published statements needed to be "clarified".

Prince Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, the Saudi Deputy Premier and Defence Minister, donated the £2 million to Oxford University in spring 2005 to support the Islamic Gallery at the Ashmolean Museum and to fund ten scholarships for "Saudi young men", according to the PSU.

One senior member of Oxford staff, who asked not to be named, said there was concern that the deal had not been discussed or publicised properly in Oxford.

He added that it could lead to pressure to admit students from the PSU, as well as pressure on academic departments to enter into alliances with the Saudi institution.

"I think it is short-sighted to give the impression to a donor that his donation has bought collaboration," he said.

Another senior source said: "This is deeply problematical. There are hundreds of universities across the world, but this is not a particularly prestigious one. The academic case for this is entirely obscure. It looks like the partnership has been bought and signed for on behalf of the university by the development office, bypassing academic monitoring."

The Oxford spokeswoman said: "The university will always be interested in forging international links. A number of faculties were involved in talks and a number of academics took part in a visit by a PSU delegation to Oxford in May."

She said that university procedures did not require that all contracts be vetted by the council or congregation.

She said: "There is no suggestion whatsoever of preferential treatment of Saudi Arabian applicants for a place to study at Oxford." She said there "was no reason" to think that the scholarships were not open to women.

"The fact that there are special scholarships available may be an incentive to apply, but it does not guarantee admission. All applicants will have to satisfy the same criteria. There are ten scholarships available over the next 25 years, " she said.

"To my knowledge, no concerns have been raised within the university about this."

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

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