Lucre made the spires what they are

In refusing 'tainted money' for a business school, Oxford's dons are ignoring their own long tradition and acting out of malice, argues John Patten
Click to follow
Oxford University, traditionally the home of lost causes, seems bent on becoming the home of lost donations.

The don's parliament, Congregation, voted down Mr Wafic Said's princely and historic gift of pounds 20m to build a world-class business school right in the middle of Oxford. The dons that did not turn up to bark will soon have the chance to overturn this daft decision by a postal vote. They should reject the arguments put forward - often in high-minded prose, but too often based on malicious motive - because there are three reasons why the dons' decision is wrong.

First, because of the historic short-sightedness of their view, which is prejudiced against rich merchant adventurers, and in particular if they are foreign. Oxford would not be like it is if buccaneering and free- spirited businessmen operating abroad had not prospered, and then decided to put a good slice of their prosperity into the university.

Ponder Cecil Rhodes and all that African money. This treasure-house of architecture and powerhouse of scientific and intellectual endeavour simply would not exist if it had not been for the help of people like Mr Said, stretching back through the centuries to the high Middle Ages.

Yet there is among a small but influential minority in the university the perfectly disgusting view that money generously offered is tainted by the origin of the hand that offers it. Photographs of the scene outside Congregation during the debate were sadly typical of modern Oxford - undergraduates holding banners with such thoughtful messages as "we don't want your bloody money". These student manifestations, and those of some of their donnish elders, would be quaint if they were not so damaging to one of Britain's greatest institutions. The opposition to Mr Said's gift seems largely based on wild accusations of tainted money, for which there is absolutely no foundation, and is linked to the fact that Mr Said is a friend of Lady Thatcher.

I am convinced that much, although not all, of the arguments against this donation emanated from a bunch of intellectual and political pygmies who are afraid to come out for fear of demonstrating that they are deeply prejudiced - just the sort of political incorrectness that they are endlessly trying to root out in other people. This xenophobia among those who prattle on about the importance of a "plural society" is unforgivable.

Just imagine, if on this very site, Mr Bill Gates of Microsoft had offered pounds 20m to build a business school - the donnish world would have been falling over itself to applaud such a magnificent WASP benefaction.

Second, what about the site? Open green space is important in Oxford, and the river valleys provide vital green lungs right in the heart of the city. This business school would certainly make central Oxford even more crowded, with buildings of all sorts, shapes, sizes and antiquity hug-a-mugger with each other.

But the university has flourished precisely because of that crowding, with dons in their departments, or in the senior common rooms of their college, rubbing intellectual sparks off each other as they meet there or in the streets and lanes of the city centre. Its very crowded nature is part of the dynamic that has driven Oxford on through the centuries.

Third, if Oxford donnery in its postal vote really does reject this benefaction, or if the city council then decides to compound the injury by refusing to give it planning permission, then town and gown together will be making the classic "science park mistake".

What is this? Thirty years ago, Cambridge decided to have one, to the immense benefit of that university and its townfolk, revitalising the real economy of the area just as it stimulated scientific Cambridge. Oxford missed out. What this business school would do is have exactly the same multiplier effect on Oxford, not just on the intellectual life of the university, but by creating the extraordinary range of jobs and activities which will flow from it, preventing the city from sliding more into a theme park with old buildings.

The business of business should not be recharged as vulgar. If we are going to be prosperous in the 21st century, then we need to build, not reject, a culture of people prepared to participate in vigorous economic endeavours. If this project fails, and the university settles for second best - building a business school years later out beyond the ring road - it will largely have lost its point. It if is slap bang in the middle of Oxford, then young men and women will daily walk past it, they will see that it is there, and by the virtue of it being there, be encouraged to recognise it as part of their culture. That is why an integrated business school is so vital and its central location critical.

And what about those almost incessantly approached by colleges and the university to make donations? It is a myth that it is "vulgar big businesses" which always give all the donations to a university like Oxford. Great sums of money are raised continually by approaching individuals who give their standing order for so many pounds a month, or an occasional hard- earned gift of pounds 500. How will they feel if the university slaps this gift full in the face? Many will think that if they do not want pounds 20m, they cannot want my pounds 500.

A lot will also conclude that there is something very rotten in the heart of Oxford. And that it was not Mr Said's business school.

John Patten, MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, was once both a Fellow of an Oxford college, and Education Secretary.