The resignation earlier this month of Howard Davies, Director of the London School of Economics, over the institution's acceptance of donations from Libya has exposed inadequate guidelines for universities on ethical fundraising from foreign regimes.
See also the article by Bruce Macfarlane in Commentary
However, British Universities Minister David Willets said the government would not be providing guidelines to institutions seeking overseas donations, even though it accepted that donations from some regimes could in some cases contradict foreign policy objectives.
"Universities are free institutions. One of the strengths of the British system is the autonomy of universities," Willets said at the margins of the British Council's Going Global conference held in Hong Kong this weekend.
Side-stepping the need for government guidelines, he said universities were "legally charities" and should follow the guidance of the Charities Commission on accepting donations. "It would be a slippery slope if the government were sitting in judgment on donations and links with countries around the world."
But Martin Davidson, Chief Executive of the British Council which promotes UK higher education overseas, told reporters: "It's not up to educational institutions to decide what government is legitimate."
However, Davidson said: "You must expect universities and academics to be more conscious of these things than in the past. Libya has shown that." He added that universities should also be cautious about doing research with the military in other countries.
Institutions in several countries, particularly the US, have been quick to investigate donations in the wake of the London School of Economics controversy. The LSE was found to have accepted a £1.5 million (US$2.4 million) donation from a foundation headed by Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi's son Saif Al Islam in 2009, after he had been awarded a PhD.
The private IMADEC University in Vienna, Austria, where Saif studied for a business degree before his stint at the LSE, said it had turned down offers from Gaddafi to link up with Libyan institutions. It had received no offers of donations, the university's President Christian Joksch told Austrian media.
Howard Davies admitted in radio interviews after his resignation that advice he had received on the donation was "poor".
However, in the most recent survey of funding from governments to UK universities, published in 2009, Robin Simcox of the UK-based Centre for Social Cohesion said "universities have insufficient safeguards in place to prevent donations affecting the way universities are run".
Simcox said there were "serious doubts about the desirability of British universities accepting large amounts of funding from dictatorial governments, as well as about the possible influence these donations allow those governments to have on UK academia."
"The UK's finest universities are taking money from some of the world's worst dictatorships - Iran, Saudi Arabia and China, all nations with appalling human rights records are significant contributors to venerable UK institutions."
Many universities accept large amounts of money anonymously and institutions in the UK are not obliged to publish the agreements.
The Vice-chancellor of Bristol University, Eric Thomas, told the Hong Kong conference that his institution had its own ethics committee. But he suggested it might be a better idea to farm out decisions on the ethics of donations to "people who had no interest in the money".
Cambridge University has accepted a donation from Oman to fund a chair in Abrahamic Faiths and Shared Values, but, in the face of student criticism of taking money from regimes with questionable human rights records, says it has ethical guidelines.
GR Evans, an emeritus professor of Medieval theology and intellectual history at Cambridge, said one of the tests was whether there was "evidence that acceptance of the proposed benefaction or compliance with any of its terms will damage the university's reputation, including deterring other benefactors.
"Universities found to have been naive in taking money and agreeing deals, may find their capacity to attract respectable funding adversely affected," Evans warned in a letter to The Times newspaper.
University heads from other countries said the LSE debacle was a salient lesson for all of them. "You have to be careful," said Lap-Chee Tsui, Vice-chancellor of the University of Hong Kong, which accepts funds from mainland Chinese donors.
It is not enough to say the institution does not know what kind of person the money is coming from. "You have to be discrete and ask around," he told University World News.
"There are a lot of rich people in mainland China. Many large donations to universities are in the newspapers but there are many smaller donations that no one hears about," he said, adding that it was important to network first before accepting donations.
"The LSE case is very unfortunate. But it could easily happen to us. If it happens you have to take the responsibility," Tsui said.
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