9 July 2021

Cambridge must take care, but it’s well within its rights to take money from the UAE

By Andrew Tettenborn

Imagine you are a university vice-chancellor. Your PA gently announces a call from the cultural attaché of a rich country not well-known for democracy, who murmurs that his government admires your institution enormously and would like to make a seriously big benefaction to it. What next?

This is what happened to Cambridge last year. The UAE government offered it a princely sum – comfortably on the right side of £300 million – to promote the study of Islamic art and culture, engineering and innovation, in particular research into alternatives to fossil fuels. The study would take place in both Cambridge and in the UAE, where Cambridge would gain a presence. Cambridge said yes and went into serious negotiations.

For all its munificence, the difficulty with this offer was not hard to see. While the UAE is awash with money and perfectly friendly to visitors who keep their heads down and mouths shut, it is a fundamentally unattractive place for a free thinker. Those who fall foul of the regime, or offend important people connected with it, are likely to be arrested, imprisoned or worse, as a visiting academic found to his cost three years ago. Its rigid intolerance of homosexuality in any form is notorious. It has little tradition of being welcoming to intellectual pluralism, or for that matter to the public airing of any views that contradict its conservative Islamic mindset.

For this reason a chorus of opinion has severely criticised the deal, including a former representative of Human Rights Watch, academics at Cambridge, the university trade union UCU, and the student newspaper Varsity. The arrangement has been called a betrayal of Cambridge’s values, a Faustian pact, and a sell-out to those who see education as a mere commodity to be auctioned to the highest bidder.

At first sight this all sounds plausible, and there is indeed one thing which Cambridge must watch carefully. Whatever it agrees, it must draw a firm line in the sand on the issue of academic liberty and academics’ freedom of speech. This matters, since the propensity of the piper’s paymaster to insist on picking the tune has caught universities out before when they have unthinkingly taken state largesse.

China, for example, has a nasty record of leaning on UK universities whose departments it has helped bankroll to persuade them to have a word with academics seen as too critical of the CCP regime, or events in Hong Kong or Xinjiang. It has also sought to adjust the curriculum taught here, and on occasion discreetly demanded previous sight of lectures to be delivered online to institutions in China and elsewhere, coupling such requests with hints that if they are not met Chinese students, who are very lucrative to their universities, may be encouraged to study elsewhere.

In the context of the UAE the protection of these freedom can probably be managed. Although it is clearly impossible for Cambridge to insist on academics physically present in the UAE being accorded the same degree of freedom of public speech they have at Trinity High Table, it can (and should) make it clear that any attempt to interfere with academic freedom or speech in the UK will scupper the arrangement.

This aside, however, the critics of the deal are wrong. Here’s why.

First, it is all very well for Cambridge’s critics to point out the unpleasantness of the UAE regime. They are probably right. But does this necessarily taint its money, or mean that Cambridge is somehow defiling itself by taking it?

Although it has often been assumed that universities should eschew gifts from undesirables such as authoritarian regimes, Big Oil, Big Tobacco or the like, the answer is by no means obvious. There’s actually a strong, if contrary, argument the other way: if an organisation is that unpleasant, then transferring assets irrevocably from it to the promotion of charitable ends is actually a net social gain. Cambridge in this connection could, I suspect, do worse than invoke the Roman emperor Vespasian, who, having imposed a tax on public lavatories, showed a coin deriving from it to his son Titus, with the words pecunia non olet (money doesn’t stink).

Secondly, insisting that a university be carefully selective about the governments whose money it takes involves a further risk: namely, politicising an institution that ought to be above politics. We can assume Cambridge would be quite happy accepting donations from (say) Japan to investigate Shinto culture, or Norway to study Nordic literature. But if so, then demanding that it repudiate this donation from the UAE amounts to insisting that the university in an official capacity express a view that it prefers some governments over others. Indeed, for the university to refuse this donation on such grounds may well hurt its good name rather more than accepting the money despite its source on the ground that it remains studiedly non-judgmental in matters of geopolitics.

Thirdly, there is a point of hard practicality. Cambridge’s detractors may not like it, but if you want to set up a department of (say) Islamic art with the kind of money that only states can provide, you don’t have much option. There aren’t that many well-heeled Islamic countries to choose from that share our views on democracy and human rights. If so, it seems that here we have a simple choice. Do Western seats of learning take the money, if necessary holding their academic nose, and promote scholarship with it? Or do we really expect them to make a quixotic gesture by saying that they disapprove of this regime or that, and thereby impoverish the academic world as a result? I know which option I would take. And I have a sneaking feeling most CapX readers would agree with me.

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Andrew Tettenborn is Professor of Law at the University of Swansea. He specialises in private, commercial and maritime law.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.