More dirty money for Oxford University

Tom White
Tom White
Sep 5 · 9 min read
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Ryan Bodenstein

Earlier this summer, the University of Oxford announced its biggest single “direct donation since the Renaissance”: £150 million from Stephen A. Schwarzman, the multibillionaire chairman of Blackstone private-equity group. As many large public institutions reconsider their links with controversial right-wing donors, Oxford has signalled that it has little intention of doing likewise. The Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities will open in 2024. According to a slick new website, it “will be a dynamic hub dedicated to the humanities.” The Centre will also eventually house Oxford’s new Institute for Ethics in AI, “which will build upon the University’s world-class capabilities in the humanities to lead the study of the ethical implications of artificial intelligence and other new computing technologies.”

Schwarzman’s payment — I decline to call it a “donation” or “gift” — represents a significant transfer of wealth from some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world to an already vastly wealthy institution. At a recent open meeting regarding the new centre, senior management were keen to stress that Schwarzman had passed the University’s “rigorous” clearance tests. Precisely what those tests involve wasn’t made clear. Did they take into account UN special rapporteur Leilani Farha’s recent identification of Blackstone, the largest property owner in the world, as the main contributor to the global housing crisis? Or that in 2013, Independent Clinical Services, a NHS care provider owned by Blackstone, was found to have avoided paying millions of pounds in tax? Or that the company has also made significant campaign donations to climate denier politicians like Republican US senator John Barosso, and has made large investments in shale gas drilling? Just last week, amid raging fires in the Amazon, it emerged that Blackstone owns two Brazilian firms that are “significantly responsible” for its rapid deforestation. The University apparently sees no incongruity between these latter facts and its recent commitment to cut its carbon emissions by 50% by 2030.

Stories about Oxford and Cambridge have a way of reaping more than their fair share of coverage in the British press, and given their recent record it probably won’t come as much of a surprise to many that Oxford has no problem taking Schwarzman’s money. Yet not only does Schwarzman’s payment once again raise significant questions around the ethics of public institutions accepting the largess of self-serving billionaire philanthropy, it also raises broader questions about the future of education and in whose interests schools, colleges and universities are run.

No good billionaires

The grim irony of building a centre for the study of ethics with money amassed through some of the most predatory and socially and ecologically damaging practices of modern capitalism is apparently lost on Oxford’s Vice Chancellor, Prof. Louise Richardson. “Do you really think we should turn down the biggest gift in modern times, which will enable hundreds of academics, thousands of students to do cutting-edge work in the humanities?” Richardson asked in response to criticism of Blackstone’s business practices and Schwarzman’s connections to Donald Trump.

The Oxford-based author Philip Pullman also backs the plan: “This is one of the most exciting ideas for a long time,” he said. “Oxford, which abounds in talent of all kinds, deserves a proper centre for the study and celebration of the humanities.” Perhaps if Pullman had asked some of the people currently teaching and researching in the humanities at Oxford about the plan, he might have had pause for thought. Like so many of its counterparts, the University is structurally dependent on the labour of precariously employed academics and staff. A 2016/17 survey by the Universities and Colleges Union found that 61.3% of teaching staff and 77% of all academic staff were on “insecure” (fixed-term or atypical) contracts, though due to the intricacies of Oxford’s collegiate system, the real figure is likely even higher. Pullman might consider whether the main barrier to the more sustainable and even more vibrant “study and celebration of the humanities” in Oxford is really the lack of an expensive new building bearing a right-wing billionaire’s name.

The Schwarzman Centre plans should also be read in light of the University’s continuing failure to address the under-representation of working class and BAME students. A report by the Sutton Trust found that from 2015–17 students from eight schools were awarded 1,310 Oxbridge places, compared with 1,220 from 2,900 other schools. 7% of pupils in the UK attend private school; in 2018, 39.5% of students admitted to Oxford were educated privately. A study by sociologist Vikki Boliver found that in 2013, the success rate of White students applying to Oxford was 25.4%. For Black Caribbean students this figure was 14.3%, and for Black African students 13%. The success rate of Bangladeshi students was 6.7 per cent and that of Pakistani students 6.5%. These figures have improved marginally in the intervening years, and the University recently announced new plans to increase access, but it is clear that Oxford has little intention to use a significant share of its vast financial resources to drive the kind of radical changes that would be needed to really address its historic class biases and institutional racism. The uncritical celebration of a £150-million new building looks like bad taste when many of the academic staff who will work there often struggle pay their rent; it looks obscene when so many of the students who study there will come from a narrow socioeconomic class and ethnic background, and will already have benefitted from a private education.

Schwarzman’s payment to Oxford is not his first to a higher education institution. In May last year, Jim Sleeper wrote for Dissent on the controversy surrounding Schwarzman’s $150 million donation to Yale University. Schwarzman’s donation and the accompanying renaming of the Commons and Memorial Hall as the “Schwarzman Center” was met with significant opposition from students and faculty. Incisive reporting from the student-led Yale Daily News made clear both Blackstone’s rapacious business practices and Schwarzman’s own craven need for name recognition. Predictably enough, Yale’s senior management sprang to Schwarzman’s defence. In a piece by Hailey Fuchs on the lengthy negotiations between Yale and Schwarzman, then YDN reporter David Yaffe-Bellany recounted how it appeared that a team of university administrators were “running public relations interference for one of the wealthiest, most powerful men in the country.”

Oxford would likely do the same, but the announcement of Schwarzman’s more recent payment is yet to be met with comparable opposition from faculty (fortuitously, perhaps, the announcement was made just as many people departed the city for the summer). The response from many of my senior colleagues in the humanities, people who pride themselves on their razor-sharp critical faculties, seems to have been one of complacency, or just wilful ignorance — it appears many are content to take Schwarzman’s mawkish story about his teenage enchantment on visiting the university at face value.

Richardson stated that the payment marks a “significant endorsement of the value of the humanities in the 21st century”. I would suggest instead that it marks a significant attempt by a right-wing billionaire to gain further political influence, via a huge cash investment in an institution that, as the training ground for politicians, civil servants and economists, has long been at the heart of power in the UK. It should be a cause of grave concern that Schwarzman has effectively bought long-term influence over the future direction of the humanities at Oxford. The influence of the Koch brothers — close associates of Schwarzman’s — on higher education in the US provides a vivid example of how billionaires can bend institutions to their own political ends, in order both to embed profit-making within education provision and to shape what and how students study.

Education for all

Schwarzman’s presence in Oxford is a particularly stark example of the cynical and self-serving nature of billionaire philanthropy. It is also only the latest chapter in the story of elites’ attempts to prioritise private interests over the public good in the provision of education. The right (and much of the centre and centre-left, alas) has long been engaged in a project to remake education as another domain in which profit-seeking masquerades as “competition” and “choice” for parents and students. With the marketisation and neoliberalisation of higher education, UK universities increasingly resemble quasi-private corporations, with Vice Chancellors like Louise Richardson as their vastly overpaid CEOs, jetting around the world to negotiate payments from billionaires as their salaries grow ever more disproportionate to those of the university’s lowest paid workers. The negotiation of large “donations” are bound-up in non-disclosure agreements; the idea that the decision to accept or refuse Schwarzman’s money should have been made democratically by the University’s members — its students, academics and staff — is clearly not one that was ever considered.

In schools, the rapid growth of academies and free schools over the last two decades in many ways mirrors the development of charter schools in the US. A handful of large multi-academy trusts run their schools on what a government inspector described in 2016 as “a Walmart philosophy or, ‘Pile them high, sell them cheap. Let’s empire build rather than have the capacity to improve these schools’”. Numerous reports have detailed how millions of pounds of taxpayer money has disappeared into private hands under the auspices of “senior management” roles and “consultation fees”. In her 2017 book Miseducation: Inequality, education and the working classes, Diane Reay writes that “While academisation is branded in terms of raising educational achievement, the real agenda is privatization”.

The growing opposition to free schools and academies and to donors like Schwarzman wielding undue influence over universities like Oxford clearly have different targets and require different kinds of resistance. Yet they aim at the same broad goal: an end to unjustifiable and gratuitous private and corporate influence in education. The left cannot just oppose the most egregious examples of billionaire philanthropy and marketisation, though. We also need our own ambitious vision for the future of education. Significantly, Labour have outlined plans for a National Education Service (NES), a counterpart to the UK’s National Health Service. The NES would provide “cradle-to-grave learning that is free at the point of use”. Official plans remain somewhat vague at this stage, but a number of groups and campaigns are already making clear what the NES can and should encompass. As the recently launched Labour Against Private Schools campaign argues, abolishing private schools and redistributing their vast resources and wealth would provide generous funds for a truly comprehensive, non-selective school system. Just as significantly, the severing of the link that has long flowed through private education and Oxbridge to the seats of power in the United Kingdom would clearly be a powerful symbol of the move toward a more just and equal society. 70% of Boris Johnson’s cabinet were educated privately; Johnson is the twentieth Prime Minister to be educated at Eton alone. It would be especially fitting for Johnson — a smug, callous racist who has failed upwards his entire life — to be both the last PM from Eton in its current guise, and also one of the shortest serving.

In higher and further education, the NES could pave the way for the co-operative and democratic control of open access colleges and universities, along the lines of the existing Co-operative College. We must also demand that universities and colleges establish closer relationships with their communities, so that educational provision can be democratically decided and directed according to local needs.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

These are ambitious aims that will require not only significant planning and resources, but also a fundamental reframing of education as a human right and a good in and of itself, at whatever stage of life it is undertaken. But with the decimation of education funding since 2010, and with the looming prospect of large-scale automation on the horizon, ambition is precisely what is needed. As Amelia Horgan argued in an article for the New Socialist last year, the NES ‘doesn’t aim merely to promote a few of the deserving poor. Instead, it has the potential to transform people’s view of themselves and of the world around them, to promote human flourishing at the individual and societal level’. In this world, billionaires will only contribute to education through the expropriation of their ill-gotten wealth.

Edit 05/09/19: with current events at Westminster, it looks like Labour might get the opportunity to make its case for a NES sooner rather than later. Boris Johnson’s recent announcement of a schools ‘revolution’ was nothing of the kind. Labour must take the chance to offer a genuine revolution for education at all ages.

Written by

Tom White

Postdoctoral research fellow in the English Faculty, University of Oxford & contributing editor of the Glasgow Review of Books.

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