Monday, 7 March 2011

Why the LSE scandal should be no shock to anyone


So Howard Davies, Director of the London School of Economics (above), has resigned following a string of allegations about the institution's acceptance of Libyan money. The whole affair has made the LSE look foolish at best, and negligent at worst.

Three things spring to mind about this - and none of them make comfortable reading.

First: it's not so much the money - £1.5m isn't much, and anyone who's ever worked for a charity or sat on any sort of voluntary board will recall such dilemmas, though it must be said of much smaller scale and scope. Not many Women's Institute board meetings are gatecrashed by a nasty dictator trying to hand over bucketfulls of cash. It's the deep, abiding and personal links that LSE forged with a regime they must have known is deeply unpleasant. Board members were worried about causing Gadaffi's media-friendly son any 'embarrassment'. Academics were vetted before meeting the dictator. And what a dictator. He makes Mubarak look statesmanlike. At the time of writing, Colonel Gadaffi and his loyalists are clining to power by using air power against civilians, organising 'disappearances' throughout Tripoli, and sending tanks into confined urban spaces. One of the reasons he's held out for so long - and will probably continue to do so - is that he has dissolved most of the state structures that were able to lever tyrants in Tunisia and Egypt out of the way (and are now trying to consolidate their grip on power once more). Libya doesn't have any of that - no trade unions, no even partially free press, no political parties. How can the LSE have got in so deep? It's a mystery, but it perhaps speaks to an academy that's now completely instrumental - in the sense that it'll do what it's told whoever's doing the telling. After years and years of 'Quality Audit' and 'Research Assessment', maybe some lecturers just follow orders without thinking.

Second: it's a bit unfair to pick on universities. Plenty of oil firms, arms companies, engineering and financial service exporters are in bed with all sorts of nasty regimes - witness the Prime Minister's keen approval of the arms dealers he took with him to the Gulf at the height of the recent crisis in Bahrain. Political parties are no angels either: witness the long 'cash for honours' affair that so sapped New Labour's energies. As some management experts have pointed out, universities are just more transparent, placing them directly in the firing line when a dictator wobbles or is toppled. Big money has always challenged our moral norms - though its bigness in our present lopsided and divided world makes the problem worse.

Third: this was an accident waiting to happen. What other British universities are going to be red-faced if other regimes fall, particularly in the Gulf? I'll leave that question hanging in the air, because no-one really knows. But since the 1988 Education Act, universities have been told 'to go out and look for work', in Norman Tebbit's famous phrase. They've been hugely underfunded in international terms - as Simon Szreter has pointed out in the Times Higher. They've still managed to secure 14 places in the world's top 100 universities. But they've had to turn this way and that for cash - as the long debate about the funds for the Said Business School at Oxford showed. American institutions aren't immune to this sort of thing. But they can at least draw on a long tradition of local philanthropy and alumni giving. Without such a network of donors, some British universities appear to have gone where the money was - wherever it was.

Want to know what the 'Big Society' can look like when the state is hollowed out as quickly as right now? Er, look no further.

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