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Exclusive: MPs demand British universities stop accepting donations from dictatorships

Universities should not accept donations from dictatorships, MPs have said, following a Telegraph investigation into donations made to British institutions by authoritarian regimes.

Universities should not accept donations from dictatorships, MPs have said, following a Telegraph investigation into donations made to British institutions by authoritarian regimes.

Experts have warned that universities should be subject to funding rules similar to political parties to prevent foreign powers from “buying” influence at the heart of  British higher education.

This newspaper has identified dozens of cases where the UK’s leading universities have accepted sponsorship from regimes accused of links to terrorism or human rights violations.

Hundreds of millions of pounds are funnelled into British universities from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, with funds often earmarked for setting up Middle Eastern or Islamic study centres.

Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, nephew of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, donated £8 million to Cambridge University to build The Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre of Islamic Studies.

Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Muhammad al-Qasimi, the ruler of  Sharjah – one of the most conservative emirates in the United Arab  Emirates (UAE) – has given more than £8 million to Exeter University  over two decades.

He has been a generous donor to the university’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, and was described as "the university's  single most important supporter" in its 2007 annual report.   

Meanwhile, Cambridge University accepted a £3.7 million donation to establish a professorship for Chinese development studies, funded by a charity controlled by China’s former prime minister, Wen Jiabao.

Foreign donations made to Britain's leading universities

Robert Halfon MP, a former minister and the new education select committee chair said that every university should “think very carefully” about where it accepts money from.

“It should be from democratic countries in my view,” he told The Daily Telegraph.  “I’d rather they looked at democratic countries as opposed to dictatorships or countries with questionable human rights records.”

Mr Halfon has previously labelled Durham University's decision to accept a £2.5 million endowment from a former Kuwaiti Prime Minister who resigned in a corruption row "astonishing", and has criticised the university for accepting a donation from the Iranian government.  

He also said it was “hideous” that the way the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) “cosied up” to the Gaddafi regime in Libya, accepting a £1.5m gift from a foundation led by Colonel Gaddafi's son Saif, a former student.

The university was later criticised for a "chapter of failures" in its links with the Gaddafi regime.

Saif al-Islam is the son of former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi

Professor Anthony Glees, director of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at Buckingham University, said that funds which seek to shape public opinion should be bound by the same rules as donations to political parties.

"By donating to higher education institutions, Arab and Islamic states are able to dictate a research agenda and influence public opinion in a way which we would not allow for our political parties,” he said.

“Foreign donors can not only shape the debate, but they can also influence students and impressionable young minds.”

Prof Glees, who has written a report on the teaching of Islamic Studies in British universities, added: “Higher education institutions must have highest possible ethical values and must not be sold to the highest bidder.”

Echoing their comments, Andrew Percy, a Conservative MP and former minister, also called for stricter rules on foreign donations to universities.

"There needs to be some sort of oversight of this,” he said. “These are public institutions, educating the young of tomorrow. We should apply very strict rules about foreign donations.

“Universities have been a breeding ground for hatred in recent years and students have been radicalised on our campuses.

“They should not be taking donations from people who are seeking to influence their direction, or hold views inconsistent with promoting tolerance and values of mutual respect and democracy."

Foreign donors can not only shape the debate, but they can also influence students and impressionable young minds.Prof Anthony Glees

The Qatar Development Fund donated £3 million to Oxford University’s Thatcher Scholarships fund, which was established by Somerville College in the late Prime Minister’s memory.

Baroness Thatcher’s former chief press secretary Sir Bernard Ingham said it was “bloody outrageous” that the donation was accepted from a state which “promotes terrorism”.  

“It seems to me to be very peculiar at the very least that the university which denied her an honorary degree now names a scholarship funded by a state which promotes terrorism,” he told The Sunday Telegraph.

“I really wonder what’s going on. I think if she was still around she would be asking some very awkward questions. One wonders where we go from here, are there are any principles left?”

An Oxford University spokesman said that all donations are “subjected to high-level and stringent scrutiny” and that the Qatar-Thatcher scholarships “have the approval of Lady Thatcher’s family and some of her closest, most senior advisors”.

A Russell Group spokesman said: “Philanthropy plays an important role in enabling the UK’s higher education sector to deliver world-class research and teaching. Maintaining academic independence is paramount and our universities have established policies in place for considering donations.”

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