Libya and the LSE

March 4, 2011

After intensifying pressure and days of media speculation, the director of the London School of Economics, Sir Howard Davies, has finally resigned over his institution’s controversial links with the Libyan regime. He was doubtless right to go, having made grave errors of judgement that severely damaged the LSE’s reputation, seeing it branded the ‘Libyan School of Economics’.

The errors go well beyond simply accepting £1.5m from the Saif Gadaffi Foundation, despite the warnings of the School’s own renowned expert on Middle Eastern politics, the late Fred Halliday, not to do so. The biggest failure of judgement – shared, apparently, by several senior figures at the LSE – was to believe that, by dispensing some funds and training to Libyan ‘civil society’ groups and civil servants, they could really help bring about progressive change in that country. This is, frankly, a rather naïve and elitist view of how political change comes about, ignoring both the nature of state power in countries like Libya, and the absolute requirement for the involvement of broad masses of the people for any true democratic transition to occur, not just a handful of ‘enlightened’ elites. Singapore – which shares this narrow view of political change – has trained over 5,000 Burmese civil servants since 1990 as part of its ‘constructive engagement’ policy, yet one would be hard pressed to identify any improvement in governance there since.

However, we should be careful about suggesting that these lapses of judgement indicate anything more nefarious. Despite the innuendo contained in recent reports, there is no obvious evidence that the money received from Libya – only £300,000 of the £1.5m pledged, a tiny proportion of the LSE’s £221m annual income – has perverted its research agenda or degraded its academic standards. The School was careful to retain full control over the programmes funded by the donation, and implications that the funds were essentially a quid pro quo for granting Saif Gadaffi a PhD lack firm foundation. Certainly it seems that Saif’s doctoral thesis is partly plagiarised. But as the recent scandal surrounding the German defence minister shows, it is entirely possible for PhD examiners – who are only human – to initially miss instances of plagiarism, even those by students not linked to Colonel Gadaffi. To be sure, it doesn’t look good. But that is not firm proof of any wrong-doing. Uncovering funding streams is not, contrary to what many think today, a ‘smoking gun’. Money does not automatically buy loyalty, or determine what people think, say or do.

It’s important to emphasise this because the fallout over the LSE is threatening to engulf other British universities. The Telegraph has revealed that Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, UCL and others have taken over £233.5m from ‘Muslim rulers’ since 1995. The report cites Professor Anthony Glees’ claim that this funding has successfully aimed to ‘push an extreme ideology and act as a form of propaganda for the Wahhabist strain of Islam within universities’. The supposed proof of this is that 70 per cent of lectures at the Middle East Centre of St Antony’s College, Oxford, are ‘implacably hostile’ to the West and Israel.

This is little more than an Islamaphobic version of Cold War-era red scares, in which academics with whose views one disagrees are discredited by being branded stooges of hostile foreign powers. Western involvement in the Middle East – from the CIA-backed coup that overthrew Mossadeq in 1953 to the 2003 Iraq War and beyond – has undoubtedly been largely malign. Israeli policy towards the Palestinians can only be described as brutal, and is widely condemned in Europe and most developing countries. The idea that one needs to have received Saudi cash in order to come to these quite reasonable conclusions is ridiculous.

I studied at St Antony’s, and never saw anything there besides a commitment to rigorous scholarship and open, critical debate. Certainly, I was extremely unhappy that Oxford had taken £29m from a reputed arms dealer to found its business school, and that it took Saudi money to establish its Centre for Islamic Studies. I would have preferred it not to do so, as would many students and dons. But nothing in my five years studying and then teaching at Oxford led me to believe that these funds had somehow corrupted the scholars working there.

Nonetheless, such suspicions are likely not only to persist but to intensify because of the growing privatisation of British higher education. It is crucial to appreciate why our universities are taking funds from unsavoury governments and ending up in such embarrassing situations. Since the 1980s, universities have been deliberately and systematically under-funded by the state in order to force them into closer relationships with the private sector. Scholars are also told that their research must be ‘relevant’, with identifiable and largely economic ‘impact’, such as new technologies and processes for industry or the creation of spin-off companies. These pressures, which do create real threats to academic freedom, are now intensifying as the government withdraws 80 per cent of its teaching grant and vast swathes of research funding.

Merely to sustain their operations, universities are being forced to seek money wherever they can find it. Given the lack of a strong tradition of alumni gift-giving or corporate philanthropy in the UK, this often means overseas. Today, the centres of global capital accumulation are the Middle East and East Asia – the former due to its massive oil exports and the latter due to rapid, export-oriented economic growth. It is these regions – and the often autocratic governments that dominate them – that have cash to spare, that send their elites’ children to study at major UK institutions, and are thus being assiduously courted by university leaders. The LSE’s predicament really reflects the neoliberalisation of British higher education and a far wider economic dependency on foreign capital.

Arguably, the real tragedy is that while Sir Howard Davies has resigned over a rather modest £300,000 donation – which apparently came not from Gadaffi himself but Western oil firms which donated to Saif’s foundation – not a single vice-chancellor has resigned in protest at, or even seriously contested, the massive cuts that are increasingly forcing them into bed with dictators.

1 Comment to "Libya and the LSE"

  1. Libyan cash and the LSE: a deeper problem « The Disorder Of Things wrote:

    […] over research, there was no influence over research, there was no influence over research.  This is, as far as anyone can see, true – there is no evidence, even in the most scathing denunciations, to suggest that there was […]

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