Oxford University’s academic publishing arm, Oxford University Press (OUP), has been ordered by the High Court to pay a fine of almost £1.9 million, following the discovery that two of its African subsidiaries had been involved in corrupt activity.

An investigation found that Oxford University Press East Africa (OUPEA) and Oxford University Press Tanzania (OUPT) had made unlawful payments to government officials between 2007 and 2010, with intent to win two contracts to supply school textbooks.

Chief executive of OUP, Nigel Portwood, condemned the dealings, asserting, “We do not tolerate such behaviour. As soon as these matters came to light we acted immediately.

“The improper behaviour was confined to a small part of the global organisation but of course such conduct should not happen at all. We have strengthened our management in the region and are taking appropriate disciplinary action in respect of those involved in this conduct.’

The contracts were financed by the World Bank, which provides loans to finance infrastructure in developing countries. As part of separate remedial conditions, OUP must pay the Bank $500,000 (over £320,000), and the two subsidiaries will not be permitted to do business with it
for the next three years.

The company was approached in May 2011 after World Bank investigators raised concerns about possible misconduct. OUP immediately called upon external lawyers and forensic accountants to identify any wrongdoing.

An action was brought against OUP by the director of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO), resulting in an agreed penalty of £1,895,435.

OUP remain “absolutely committed to the highest standards of integrity”, highlighting that a compliance course of business ethics had been taken by all employees before the allegations emerged.

An OUP spokesperson told Cherwell, “OUP’s mission is to further research, scholarship, and education by publishing and disseminating high quality resources across the world. For that reason, it is important that we continue to operate as internationally as possible.”

She said that the University, of which OUP is a department, “fully supported the speed and comprehensiveness of OUP’s actions to resolve this matter”.

On top of the fine, OUP have announced a contribution of £2 million to not-for-profit organisations for educational schemes in sub-Saharan Africa.

Leonard McCarthy, World Bank Integrity Vice-President, praised the example set by OUP in the “thoroughness” of its investigation, but also stressed that, “This debarment is testimony to the Bank’s continued commitment to protecting the integrity of its projects.”

The World Bank has debarred more than 80 other errant firms and individuals this fiscal year, and fined publishers Macmillan £11 million in 2010 over similar allegations in Sudan.

History and English student Jack Ramsden commented that it was “refreshing to see a company committed to openly rooting out its corrupt elements”, but added, “I do wonder how OUP’s board can have failed to be aware of its subsidiaries’ practices, and why it took an
external authority to compel the central board to monitor its fringes.

“OUP needs to promote greater transparency and closer scrutiny of its devolved agencies, and demonstrate ethical and sustainable business practices. If they instigate institutional changes to their subsidiaries then this scandal should not significantly affect its reputation.”

Robin McGhee, lately of St Anne’s College, remarked, “OUP seem to have had little to actually do with the bribery directly. But it’s a shame that an otherwise wonderful organisation succumbed to the temptation of stooping far lower than they ought.”