Are Britain’s Top Universities for Sale?

Some of Britain’s prestigious colleges — including the ancient universities of Cambridge and Oxford — are being accused of losing their moral compass by accepting donations from what critics say are dubious sources.

The University of Oxford, London School of Economics and University College, London, have prompted a firestorm of criticism for accepting millions of pounds from the charitable trust of the late motor-racing tycoon Max Mosley, whose fortune was largely inherited from his father Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists during the 1930s and 1940s.

Oxford was given $8 million from a charitable trust set up by Max Mosley, who died this year, and two of the university’s colleges, St Peter’s and Lady Margaret Hall, are also beneficiaries sharing another $8.5 million.

A question of morality 

The acceptance of the gifts has drawn the ire of historian Lawrence Goldman, a former vice-master of St Peter’s, who said he was shocked by the Mosley donations and accused university authorities of “vast hypocrisy.” He contrasts Oxford’s readiness to accept the Mosley cash with its push to “decolonize the curriculum.”

“But they go ahead and take money from a fund established by proven and known fascists. Its moral compass is just not working anymore. There has been a total moral failure,” he said. In a letter to the master of St Peter’s and the college’s governing body Goldman warned that taking the money from the “most infamous fascist dynasty in the English-speaking world” will be a “disaster” for the college’s reputation.

Oswald Mosley, scion of prosperous aristocratic landowners, led the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s and after the Second World War set up the Union Movement. His supporters were known as “blackshirts” for their Nazi-style uniforms and violent attacks on Jews in east London. In 1936, he married his second wife, Diana Mitford, at the home of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, with Adolf Hitler attending as guest of honor.

Max Mosley was involved in his father’s Union Movement in the post-war years and, according to his critics, never renounced his political activities. Four British Nobel laureates called Tuesday on Oxford to reconsider endowing a biophysics professorship in the name of Max Mosley’s son, Alexander, who graduated from Oxford and died from a drug overdose in 2009, saying it would dishonor” our science by linking it to the Mosley family and inevitably to British fascism.”

The University of Oxford said in a statement that the Mosley donation, like all donations, passed a “robust, independent process taking legal, ethical and reputational issues into consideration.”


But both Oxford and Cambridge, as well as some other top British universities, are also prompting mounting alarm over foreign-sourced donations they’re accepting and actively pursuing, especially from China.  


Unlike the Mosley gifts, the acceptance of millions from companies and billionaires linked to the country’s communist government is raising both political and national security concerns.

Earlier this year Oxford agreed to re-name its prestigious Wykeham Chair of Physics as the Tencent-Wykeham Professorship in return for a $950,000 donation from Chinese software giant Tencent. This year, too, Cambridge’s Department of Engineering accepted what was described as a “generous gift” from Tencent to go towards research into quantum computing. 

Tencent, the world’s largest video game vendor, was launched with seed money from China’s Ministry of State Security, according to US officials. Tencent has denied the allegation, and also disputes Western accusations that its highly popular WeChat messenger app is an important cog in China’s surveillance state with data from the app analyzed, tracked and shared with Chinese authorities.

Half of the $15 million to retrofit an old telephone exchange as a low-energy building in Cambridge to house the university’s new Institute for Sustainability Leadership has been provided by Lei Zhang, a Chinese billionaire and owner of a Shanghai-based renewable energy company. Zhang is a member of China’s National People’s Congress.

Earlier this year, Britain’s former universities minister Jo Johnson, a brother of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, warned of the “poorly understood” risks of increasingly close collaboration between British universities and China. 

Johnson, who led a study on education and research partnerships between Britain’s higher education sector and China, raised security concerns, saying collaboration had increased dramatically in sensitive areas for national security and economic competition — such as automation, telecommunications, and materials science. 

The study Johnson headed was undertaken by King’s College, London, and Harvard University. It concluded: “The UK’s dependence on a neo-totalitarian technology power for the financial health and research output of its universities is now regarded as a particular point of vulnerability.”

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