More than £281m given to top universities by anonymous donors, probe shows

Leaders in the higher education sector were concerned about proposals by MPs last year to improve transparency around overseas donations.

Eleanor Busby
Thursday 14 December 2023 00:01 GMT
Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, suggest that at least £281m was given to Russell Group institutions in the last five years (Chris Ison/PA)
Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, suggest that at least £281m was given to Russell Group institutions in the last five years (Chris Ison/PA) (PA Wire)

Britain’s top universities have received more than £281 million in anonymous donations in the last five years – including from individuals and companies overseas, an investigation has found.

The University of Oxford alone accepted more than £106 million from donors who wished to remain anonymous – the highest amount of any Russell Group university – between 2017 and 2023, according to data obtained by the investigative website openDemocracy.

This included £10m from a donor from Azerbaijan, £13.3 million from an organisation in the US, and £4.2 million from an organisation registered in China.

The figures, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, suggest that at least £281 million was given to institutions in the Russell Group – which represents 24 research-intensive universities in the UK – from donors who wanted to remain anonymous between January 2017 and May 2023.

Universities are usually aware of the identities of donors, but they can decide to keep their identities confidential and record the donations as anonymous.

Universities are hugely important institutions and as they are in receipt of large amounts of public money it is beholden on them to be transparent about their other sources of funding – and particularly those from overseas

Robin Walker, chair of the Education Select Committee

Emails obtained by openDemocracy suggest that leaders in the university sector approached Whitehall officials last year to voice their concerns about proposals by MPs to improve transparency around overseas donations.

In January 2022, Conservative MP Jesse Norman proposed an amendment to the government’s Bill on free speech and academic freedom in higher education which called for universities to disclose any gift worth more than £50,000 with any “overseas counterparty” by reporting these to the Office for Students (OfS) and the Education Secretary for publication on a public register.

In a letter drafted to a government adviser in 2022, obtained by openDemocracy, Stephen Toope, vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge at the time, said the plans would “have a hugely damaging impact” on their philanthropy and the commercial operations of their subsidiaries.

He wrote: “Many donors, especially those from countries that place emphasis on privacy as important, may feel that their giving is a private matter and expect high levels of donor privacy to be upheld by the institutions that they give to.”

Officials from the University of Cambridge held private meetings with a number of special advisers in Whitehall about their concerns, the documents suggest.

The figures show that the University of Cambridge received between £25 million and £49.9 million from donors who wished to keep their identities confidential between January 2017 and May 2023.

While many of the donations to Russell Group universities were from the UK, others were from wealthy individuals and companies abroad, including China, Hong Kong and Singapore, the investigation found.

Our universities will always prefer to publicly recognise the contribution donors make to higher education in the UK, but there are occasions when individuals seek privacy after due diligence checks are complete

Russell Group spokesman

Conservative MP Robin Walker, chair of the Education Select Committee, said: “Universities are hugely important institutions and as they are in receipt of large amounts of public money it is beholden on them to be transparent about their other sources of funding – and particularly those from overseas.”

George Havenhand, a senior legal researcher at the campaign group Spotlight on Corruption, has called for “far greater transparency” around donations.

He said: “When universities accept secretive donations from dodgy companies and unsavoury regimes, they open the door to undue influence and potentially to laundering the proceeds of crime.”

A spokesman for the Russell Group said: “Philanthropy is an increasingly important income stream for universities at a time when deficits in both domestic teaching and publicly funded research are growing.

“Russell Group universities are enormously grateful for the support of alumni and other donors, and scrutinise gifts and donations thoroughly in full compliance with UK legislation.

“Our universities will always prefer to publicly recognise the contribution donors make to higher education in the UK, but there are occasions when individuals seek privacy after due diligence checks are complete.

“This includes cases where donors fund work that may be seen as critical of their government or where revealing their identify may put their safety at risk in their home countries.

“Russell Group universities have worked closely with the government to help ensure regulations around donations and overseas partnerships are in place that provide security and boost transparency while delivering enormous benefits for the UK.”

A spokesman for the University of Oxford said: “All Oxford University research is academically driven, with the ultimate aim of enhancing openly available scholarship and knowledge.

“Donors have no influence over how Oxford academics carry out their research, and major donors are reviewed and approved by the University’s Committee to Review Donations and Research Funding, which is a robust, independent system taking legal, ethical and reputational issues into consideration before gifts are accepted.

“We take the security of our academic work seriously, and work closely with the appropriate Government bodies and legislation.

“Much of our overseas collaborative research addresses global challenges such as climate change and major health problems where international involvement is important in delivering globally relevant solutions.”

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