Jenna Corderoy – MPs urge action over ‘woeful lack of transparency’ in universities

The determination of university chancellors in the UK to defend secret donations is an indication of widespread corruption of the education system.

Jenna Corderoy is a reporter for openDemocracy’s investigations team.

Cross-posted from OpenDemocracy

Picture by Chris Rycroft

Two senior MPs have called for more transparency over university funding, after openDemocracy revealed the extraordinary influence of secret donors within higher education in the UK.

In a joint letter sent to the education secretary, Labour MP Margaret Hodge and the former Conservative minister Robert Buckland warned that universities “cannot become tainted by anonymous money extracted from potentially corrupt sources”.

Last year, openDemocracy found that more than £281m in anonymous donations have poured into so-called ‘Russell Group’ universities since 2017.

Documents also revealed how previous attempts to improve transparency were met with “dismay” by many vice chancellors, who privately lobbied the government to keep the names of wealthy foreign donors secret.

In their letter, Hodge and Buckland accuse universities of “fighting hard to avoid disclosing the source of these donations”.

It says: “Anonymous donations often originate from authoritarian states, where freedom of expression is strictly censored. Worse still, due to a woeful lack of transparency, it is unclear whether some of the overseas’ donations originate from corrupt sources. This means that our world-leading universities are at risk of becoming hubs for money laundering and, in turn, reputation laundering.”

It goes on to call for transparency measures that “compel universities to record philanthropic donations and the sources of their research funding – and then make this information publicly accessible”, as well as broadening the scope of money laundering regulations so that universities are required to carry out due diligence on the origin of donations.

The letter also highlights how universities have taken millions of pounds from anonymous donors, as well as significant sums from Chinese sources, including Huawei.

openDemocracy also found that fossil fuel companies had been given “horrifying” influence over academic degrees.

The MPs also reference an anonymous £10m donation received by the University of Oxford that was “facilitated” by the president of Azerbaijan’s sister-in-law. The case was the subject of a freedom of information tribunal earlier this month, in which openDemocracy called for the donor’s identity to be disclosed. The verdict of the tribunal has not yet been announced.

Earlier this month, 120 influential academics, politicians and campaigners signed an open letter calling for more transparency over university funding.

The APPG for Anti-Corruption & Responsible Tax – of which Margaret Hodge is chair – and the APPG for Fair Business Banking brought out an economic crime manifesto to tackle the UK’s “dirty money epidemic”.

The manifesto highlights how universities are not covered by money laundering regulations, one of several sectors where there are “no duties to check the origin of the funds they receive.”

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