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Oxford academics call for an end to anonymous university donations

Eight Oxford academics were among more than 120 academics, campaigners, politicians and journalists who called for legislation “requiring universities to publish a register of large donations and research funding” in an open letter citing the findings of a report into anonymous university donations. 

The letter was addressed to Secretary of State for Education Gillian Keegan and Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson, and noted that a difficult financial climate is one reason that universities have “increasingly found it necessary to seek large amounts of money from private donors… including many from overseas.” 

OpenDemoacracy’s report on donations found that Russell Group universities had received more than £281m of anonymous donations since 2017, including more than £106m accepted by Oxford from just 68 donors–by far the highest amount accepted by any one university. 

The letter also cited recent action by Parliament to address the issue. Last June, MPs tried to introduce legislation to ensure UK universities would publish the names of any foreign donor who gave a university more than £50,000. 

Parliament ultimately changed the phrasing from ‘duty to disclose’ to  ‘duty to consider’, due in part to what openDemocracy called a “coordinated lobbying campaign” by university officials including Cambridge’s then vice-chancellor Stephen Toope and Universities UK, an advocacy organisation for higher education bodies. 

The letter also follows a report on China released in July by the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, which called on the UK Government to “ensure that transparency around the source of foreign donations to Higher Education institutions is improved” and recommended that the Department of Education create a public register of donations, to be monitored by the State Threats Unit in the Home Office. 

Later this month, a case is expected to be heard in court on whether Oxford can block a Freedom of Information request about the identity of the anonymous donor behind a £10m gift to establish the Oxford Nizami Ganjavi Centre to research Azerbaijan, the Caucasus and Central Asia. The donation was “facilitated” by the president of Azerbaijan’s sister-in-law in 2018. 

Dr Alexander Morrison, interim director of the Oxford Nizami Ganjavi Centre and a historian at New College, told Cherwell: “without transparency over where the money comes from you cannot fully evaluate the quality, integrity and independence of academic research.”

He acknowledged that the anonymity of the donation, which came from Azerbaijan, had not “allowed Azerbaijan’s regime to exercise undue influence over the centre’s activities.” However, he also felt that this ambiguity had “ended up overshadowing all the good work that the centre actually does…” 

Dr Morrison told Cherwell that declaration of large donations to universities “allows full transparency when evaluating the  independence of the academic activities which they fund, and ensures that undue influence cannot be exercised clandestinely.” 

Another of the eight Oxford signatories, Dr Corentin Cohen, told Cherwell: “I am sure that all my colleagues are concerned about the shrinking of public space and the challenge to freedom of expression, and that they want to improve transparency and accountability.”

The Oxford signatories were Dr Corentin Cohen (St Peter’s College), Dr Katie Higgins, Dr Jody LaPorte (Lincoln College), Dr Alexander Morrisson (New College), Professor Madeleine Reeves (St Hugh’s College), Dr Amogh Dhar Sharma (St Antony’s College) and Dr Marietta van der Tol. All are academics in politics, International Relations, anthropology or history. 

A spokesperson of Oxford University told Cherwell: “All Oxford University research is academically driven, with the ultimate aim of enhancing openly available scholarship and knowledge. Donors have no influence over how Oxford academics carry out their research, and major donors are reviewed and approved by the University’s Committee to Review Donations and Research Funding, which is a robust, independent system taking legal, ethical and reputational issues into consideration before gifts are accepted.”

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