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British universities should be more discerning about their choice of benefactors

Oxford University

Just over eighteen months ago, environmental campaigners in Britain received some surprising news. They had been working for three years to get the Tate Gallery in London to reveal how much money oil giant BP had given it between 1990 and 2011. The figure turned out to be relatively small, ranging from £150,000 to £330,000 per year. Although this was a good chunk of the gallery's income in the nineties, this soon equated to less than one per cent of the Tate group's funding between 2000 and 2006. The sponsorship deal continued for another ten years, alongside similar BP sponsorships of the British Museum, the Royal Opera House and the National Portrait Gallery. Across all of these organisations, the oil company likewise contributed less than one per cent of funding to each one. The oft-heard argument that the struggling arts sector would go under were it not for this kind of funding from not-very-nice corporations was clearly bunkum. If anything, these institutions were willing collaborators in corporate whitewashing.

The same could be said of Gulf funds for British universities. Middle East Studies departments whisper about the necessity of funding from countries like the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, because budgets are falling. A close look at the finances of the University of Exeter reveals something else, though; the issue of donations from alumnus Sheikh Dr Sultan Bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi of Sharjah were raised recently by the International Campaign for Freedom in the United Arab Emirates.

According to the Telegraph, the ruler of Sharjah – one of the most conservative Emirates in the UAE — has given more than £8 million to Exeter University over two decades (roughly the same time period that the Tate was receiving money from BP). A breakdown of when these donations were made is not available, but government grants and tuition fees in 1999 (the earliest data that I have been able to find) amounted to £52 million. The equivalent figure today is £250 million, around three times the original government and student fees funding even when adjusted for inflation. Much of this has come from the introduction of hugely expensive tuition fees for students.

In 2008, the nephew of the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia gave £8 million to Cambridge University to build its "Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre of Islamic Studies". The same year, Cambridge University's annual report shows that income from government grants and tuition fees had risen from £251 million to £279 million. Cambridge made £174 million from its publishing house, more than £20 million more than in 2007. Even its "examination and assessment services" had seen income go up from £193 million to £216 million. All these increases led to the university almost doubling its surplus for the year, to £42 million. Yet that same year, it also accepted £8 million from a state known for its appalling human rights record, all the while knowing full well that the university coffers were overflowing.

After 2008, of course, there was the recession, so perhaps last year's £3 million donation from the Qatar Development Fund towards Somerville College, Oxford, was justified? Think again. Somerville College itself was certainly on track to suffer a £3 million reduction in donations had the Qatar money not arrived, and had just borrowed huge amounts to extend its buildings, but Oxford University generally was doing well. In 2010, its income had risen since the previous year by nearly five per cent, to £920 million. By 2015, that figure was up to £1.3 billion, with surpluses of nearly £400 million sat in university bank accounts. Oxford doesn't include in its numbers, as Cambridge does, its significantly profitable publishing business, which was on hand to top up coffers when they are running low.

In the UAE, we only have to go back to March to find that a prominent academic was jailed for ten years. His crime? He used Twitter. The country has imposed travel restrictions on visiting academics from Georgetown University, the London School of Economics and New York University, as well as prosecuting other university professionals. In January, the UAE government detained Abdulkhaleq Abdulla for ten days without charge after the prominent Emirati academic and vocal supporter, not critic, of the government posted a tweet that praised the UAE as the "Emirates of tolerance" but bemoaned the authorities' lack of respect for freedom of expression and political liberties. Abdulla was an adviser to Mohammed Bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, and a retired professor of political science at the University of the UAE. Similar situations abound in Saudi Arabia, and academic freedoms are only marginally better in Qatar.

So British universities are well off. They don't need money from abroad, but they are opting to take it in any case, and who they are choosing to take it from isn't encouraging. This devalues British academia and spits in the face of academics and others calling for change who are imprisoned in those donor countries for their pains. Universities should be campaigning to have tuition fees removed, be more inventive about how they make money, and stop plastering the names of Middle East dictators across their walls. They need to be much more discerning in their choice of benefactors. It's too late to do this today, but tomorrow will do very nicely.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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