Does money from foreign donors come with strings attached? Dangerously so, according to research last week that claimed foreign governments have corrupted British universities and threatened their academic impartiality.
The report, A Degree of Influence, from the UK’s Centre for Social Cohesion in London, lists the millions of dollars that leading UK universities have accepted from donors in the Middle East, Asia and Russia. Robin Simcox, the author of the report, said foreign donors that give enough money get a say in how things are run.
“Edinburgh and Cambridge received £8 million [US$12 million] each from Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia last year to set up Islamic studies centers,” he said. “He gets to appoint as many as three or five members of the management committee.”
His research is based on analysis of the information on public record and talking to universities. It focuses on Arabic and Islamic studies, but compares them with other area studies.
“Donations from the Middle East are by far the largest, but the Confucius institutes have far more influence for the money they pay,” Simcox said.
China has given about £50,000 to several British universities to set up the Confucius Institutes.
“Universities don’t get much money from the Chinese government, but they have to follow teaching standards and a set curriculum, which includes Tibet and photos of people living in mansions. It’s blatant propaganda,” Simcox said.
The report paints an alarming picture of foreign influence in academic life. But universities refute the criticisms.
Peter Agar, Cambridge University’s development director, said nominees have to be approved by the university.
“Donor representatives will always be in a minority, but may well themselves be academics who can bring an informed external perspective, adding to the expertise of the internal academic members,” he said.
The arrangements protect the university’s academic integrity while enabling a particular academic area to benefit from the input of donor representatives chosen for their interest and expertise in a particular center’s work, he said.
Professor Tim Wright of Sheffield University’s Confucius Institute, said it was “complete nonsense” to suggest the Chinese government or the Chinese Language Council International, which funds it, has any influence over the university curriculum.
“The institute is solely aimed at outreach into the community and we’ve not had any pressure at all on how we teach that either,” he said. “Obviously, it’s totally unacceptable to have any influence on the university. If they had something to say about how we teach evening classes we might look at that, but they haven’t.”
Universities are increasingly dependent on non-UK government money, but this influence “isn’t a big issue in general in most universities,” Wright said.
Diana Warwick, chief executive of the umbrella body Universities UK, insists that all academic programs are subjected to rigorous and independent quality assurance procedures, which ensure openness and high standards.
“There are established cultural and business links between the UK and the Middle East, and also with China. These are important parts of the world for the UK to engage with and understand,” she said.
Even Professor Denis Hayes, the founder of Academics for Academic Freedom, calls the report an “astonishingly weak and naive attempt to discredit major foreign funders” operating in British universities, when, he said, the greater threat is closer to home.