The long read: the libertarian links of a private tuition programme

The Oxford Study Abroad Programme faces a worrying lack of scrutiny.

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Academic freedom is being threatened at Oxford University, but its opponents are not ‘snowflake’ students. Rather, it is happening behind closed doors as part of a global attempt by a small sect of libertarians to, if not create a political hegemony, then at least to exercise undue influence over those in power: legislators, policymakers, and, most insidiously, students and academics.

In the US, this influence over higher education institutions has been well-documented: The Atlantic and investigative journalists at the Center for Public Integrity have charted the interconnections between ideological ‘anarcho-capitalists’ and oligarch climate change deniers, who are using strategic donations, grants, and fellowships at American universities to create an army of the politically sympathetic to “to infuse politics and government with free-market principles”.

Their meddling in university curricula has sparked the UnKochMyCampus campaign, which provides advice for students and academics who fear their institutions are at threat from donor interference. They found that in 2017 alone, Koch-affiliated foundations had spent $62.24 million on 296 individual university campuses. Now this mission has spread beyond US borders, in the form of ‘study abroad’ programmes. Revolving around a single political ideology, these programmes have co-opted the Oxford brand to entice US students to enrol in their narrow-minded curriculum, making an experience at one of the top universities in the world conditional upon an exclusive education in a single political opinion.

There is no reason for the majority of Oxford students to be aware of the Oxford Study Abroad Programme or the Washington International Studies Council, as it is known in the US. Working with Magdalen, New, Christ Church, and Trinity, OSAP acts as an intermediary between US students and these specific colleges, facilitating placements as Associated Members or Visiting Students for up to a year. While the details of the curricula for these studentships aren’t included on the website, OSAP also runs ‘Specialised Summer Programs’. Whilst these ‘Programs’ use college facilities and are often instructed by handpicked Oxford academics, students are taught using custom reading lists and lectures developed by the “faculty leaders” of the programmes, as Academic Director Tim Moore explained, without ‘interference’ from OSAP itself.

Nor does OSAP’s educational scheme show evidence of being overseen by the central University or departments. An Oxford University spokesperson said: “Colleges may choose to allow external groups to use their facilities under the ‘associate member’ category. The Conference of Colleges has its own guidelines on associate membership. Associate members are not Oxford University students, and colleges do not have any academic oversight of these students or responsibility for their academic programmes. However, colleges only enter into agreements with intermediary companies that offer academic programmes of good standing.” In a similar vein, Oxford’s North America Office told me staunchly that there was “no connection between OSAP and any of our staff or board members”.

Magdalen College declared that it “has no association with [OSAP], and the only associate members it accepts through an intermediary are those welcomed as part of a programme with Stanford University. The College accepts a small number of Visiting Students (not associate members) each year who have been recommended to it by WISC, in accordance with the Code of Practice for Visiting Students agreed by Council and the Conference of Colleges.”

Not only does this seem a singularly irresponsible model, a closer look at OSAP’s sample lectures, lecturers, and academic advisors reveals a highly commercialised organisation aimed at pushing a far-right agenda that is not only similar to those being propagated in the US but is directly funded from the same Koch sources. Astronomically expensive (costing up to $71,700 for one academic year), yet without giving students any form of official qualification beyond the ‘Oxford experience’, these programmes clearly do not prioritise the educational principles of research accuracy or academic freedom.

OSAP is the brainchild of the late Chicago-trained economist, Robert L. Schuettinger, whose deep involvement in the day-to-day running of OSAP’s summer programmes is evidenced not only by the eulogistic description of ‘Our Founder’ on its main website, but his repeated inclusion as a lecturer on both OSAP’s International Relations Programme and the Reagan-Thatcher Lecture Series (formerly known less discreetly as the Conservative and Libertarian Thought Programme). Trained under Friedrich Hayek in the 1950s, the European Conservative’s glowing obituary indulgently describes the former Reagan presidential aide’s “irascible personality and politically incorrect utterances” alongside his lifelong commitment to inspire “intellectual counter-revolution to cement the role of classical liberal ideas”.

In amongst the sycophancy, the eulogy reveals a rather tumultuous career, following highs of publishing the influential criticism of government fiscal intervention Forty Centuries of Wage and Price Controls with Adam Smith Institute co-founder Eamonn Butler, and lows of being fired from his job at Lynchberg College, Virginia by “tenured radicals” who had “tended to the left in the anti-Vietnam and Watergate era”. At Oxford, Schuettinger was an Associate Member of Christ Church, and a Visiting Research Fellow at the University’s Rothermere Institute from 2013-14.

All this goes to confirm that Schuettinger is not just your ordinary Oxford-phile. Indeed, he is firmly ensconced in the Koch nexus. Not only was he Director of Studies at US conservative thinktank the Heritage Foundation, which received $300,000 from the Koch-affiliated organisations in 2013, he was also a contributor to the Mises Institute’s online journal. The Institute’s board of directors includes Bob Luddy, who founded the Thales Academy, a chain of private schools teaching “free-market economics” to school pupils and has attended at least two Koch donor summits.

The Institute also plays a starring role in UnKoch’s Advancing White Supremacy report, which describes countless concerning episodes with Institute-affiliated academics, noting most shockingly the ‘Neo-Nazi’ rhetoric of its director, Jeff Deist, in his description of the importance of “blood and soil and God and nation” and the banning of Mises Institute Scholar Hans Hermann Hoppe from Reddit after he created a string of memes that featured characters wearing “the yellow-and-black anarcho-capitalist flag, and Nazi flags.”

But perhaps most damningly, Scheuttinger was a member of the Mont Pelerin Society, near-universally considered the most exclusive club of libertarian ideologues internationally. Co-founded by Hayek, the society meet annually to discuss “the fundamental principles of economic society” with members including Charles Koch himself. But Mount Pelerin isn’t merely a convivial old boys’ club: the Society had international ambitions from the outset, with many of its members providing the ideological expertise for General Pinochet’s “radical liberal constitution” for Chile which was implemented following a 1980 military-backed coup.

OSAP’s own affiliates are testament to Scheuttinger’s grand reputation in the libertarian sphere. Edwin Feulner, cited as a member of OSAP’s ‘Academic Advisory Board’, was former President of the Heritage Foundation and member of the 2016 Trump transition team. Last year, the Foundation released a statement celebrating the fact that Trump had adopted two-thirds of the Foundation’s policy recommendations which included withdrawing from UNESCO and the Paris Climate Accord, and increasing military spending. OSAP’s website also includes praise from Texan Public Policy affiliate Ronald Trowbridge, who has formerly argued for the privatisation of universities despite evidence that this allows for the politicisation of education by private funders like the Koch family.

Yet for all Schuettinger’s deep involvement with individuals that have open intentions of hijacking the education system to further disseminate their own ideology, OSAP continuing to be involved in Oxford since 1983 is indicative of dangerous naivety on the part of the University. Even if University officials didn’t give Schuettinger a quick Google, the content and lecturers behind the Specialised Summer Programmes are enough to show that the motivation behind OSAP is not wholly educational.

The International Relations programme, based primarily at New College, gives no overt indication of the course’s libertarian bent, although perhaps its emphasis on the “role of the nation-state” and “rise of ethnic and religions regionalism” [sic] doesn’t make the reality wholly unsurprising. Underpinning the programme is KCL historian Andrew Roberts’ A History of the English-Speaking Peoples since 1900, which is partnered with a lecture on ‘The English-Speaking Peoples under Attack’.

While Roberts said that he did not know his text was being used as part of the programme, he showed familiarity with OSAP programme as “the one that Bob Schuettinger ran in the 1980s.” The book itself was not only derided by Principal of St Anne’s College, Tim Gardam, for its “relentless, coarse polemic”, and belief that “only English virtues that count are those that march to the colours of the full-blooded, neoconservative global nationalism of Donald Rumsfeld and George W Bush”, but also factually incorrect, according to an Economist review, “less a history than a giant political pamphlet larded with its author’s prejudices.”

And these prejudices are not at all benign. In November 2001, Roberts was a guest of honour at a dinner at the Springbok Club for South African expats, which has been described in the Guardian as a “pro-apartheid” group. The Club’s organiser, A D Harvey, gave a speech entitled ‘Towards a New Imperialism’, archived on their website, which described how “third-world minions have been pleased and grateful to receive all the advantages of our civilisation and standards of law and order”. When asked about this association, Roberts said: “I am not nor have ever been a supporter of racial discrimination of any kind, as is very clear from my work.”

Presented on a glossy website complete with videos of vaguely bemused students wandering around Christ Church meadows, the Reagan-Thatcher Lecture Series is OSAP’s “latest offering”, teaching students “the nuances of the “special relationship” between the US and the UK first-hand”. According to Polluterwatch, in 2017 the Lecture Series’ Scholarship Fund received $10,000 from the Charles Koch Charitable Foundation, a clear link between OSAP’s ventures and the hundreds of Koch-funded academics and thinktanks in the US. Moore was unable to confirm if the donation was made, claiming the fund was a “wholly separate entity”, but he stressed that “OSAP is not associated in any way with the Koch Foundation.”

The lecturers on the Reagan-Thatcher series are a peculiar brand of Oxford academic, including historians Mark Almond, formerly a lecturer at Oriel College, and Norman Stone, former Chair of Modern History at Oxford and foreign policy advisor to Margaret Thatcher. Both Stone and Almond are affiliated with Oxford-based British Helsinki Human Rights Group. Condemned in the Economist for “noisily defending a grim lot of east European politicians against the imperialism of western do-gooders”, the group recognise that they often draw “starkly different conclusions from other human rights groups” to “present a more balanced view of events in post-communist Europe.

For an instance of these unusual views, take their approach to Hungary. According to the FT, Stone’s latest book Hungary is peculiarly “silent about the epoch-making changes that have taken place under Orban”. Meanwhile Almond, a regular writer for the Daily Mail, wrote about the appointment of the authoritarian leader, defending Orban’s professed favour of ‘illiberal democracy’, saying “what he meant was that the people should get what they voted for and not be blocked by the Eurocrats of Brussels and its judiciary.”

Stone has also been widely criticised for his refusal to recognise the WWI Armenian genocide as such, explaining to the Telegraph, “I don’t believe the Turkish leadership sat down and said, ‘Let’s wipe them all out’”. The original coiner of the term genocide, Raphael Lemkin referred both to the Holocaust and the atrocities in Armenia to define the term. Stone, perhaps coincidentally, lectures at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. When asked about his activities both inside and outside of OSAP, Stone said: “I know nothing of any of this.”

Mark Almond also has his own personal ties with the American libertarian network, acting as an Academic Advisor for the Ron Paul Institute. Another cited lecturer in the ‘sample programme’ is Ted Malloch, who formerly taught at the Said Business School in 2016 and had ambitions to be Trump’s Brussels ambassador. However, these were crushed after the University exposed his claims to be a Senior Fellow at Wolfson College and a Director of a summer school at Pembroke as false. Aside from these potentially credible lies, the FT also revealed that Malloch had boldly – and falsely – boasted of a knighthood and claimed to have been dubbed “a genius” by Margaret Thatcher in his autobiography. Yet for prospective OSAP applicants, Malloch is presented as a worthy ambassador of the University’s educational reputation.

But for all this, what should really worry the University is OSAP’s overwhelming focus on the Oxford brand, exploiting its association mercilessly in the pursuit of its clients. Students at the Reagan-Thatcher Lecture series, OSAP claims, will be taught using the “unique” Oxford tutorial system, attend formal at New College, and Evensong at Christ Church. What makes OSAP “the best overseas study abroad programme in the world” (as its website claims) is not its in-depth research into right-wing politics but its affiliation with the University. The impunity by which OSAP operates, seemingly unscrutinised by the University and unnoticed by students, is clearly evident in this reckless adoption of Oxford’s key features as indicators of legitimacy. So confident of their ‘difference, OSAP grandiosely claims to offer a $200,000 prize to the “the first reader who can describe an equal program anywhere”.

OSAP has come under scrutiny in the past. In 2013, an internal report by the University expressed concerns about how programmes like OSAP “pose a severe reputational risk” to Oxford, given that “the transaction seems to be one of a purely commercial kind” without taking into account students’ academic profile. In 2008, American students complained to Cherwell about the price of programmes like OSAP and feeling tricked into engaging with the intermediary instead of applying to the University directly. Moore claimed ignorance of both criticisms, saying he had “received no complaints about the quality of OSAP’s educational provision or the level of our fees.”

This fatal combination of narrow political ideology, politicised funding, poor educational materials, and questionable lecturers makes OSAP’s course the paradigmatic opposite of academic freedom. Putting aside the fact that their political philosophy encompasses those who have espoused racist, anti-democratic, and elitist viewpoints, simply allowing the University’s name to be associated with completely unregulated educational programmes seems absurd. While one can always claim that the University is in no way affiliated with the programmes beyond the letting of a college room, the failure to recognise that any association will always be internationally interpreted as endorsement is deeply naïve.

Our University needs to take responsibility and wake up to the fact that ‘neutrality’ cannot justify what is really a dangerous lack of critical examination.