Durham University accept award funding from tobacco firm

When Durham University launched an appeal to fund postgraduate scholarships for female students from Afghanistan, the last thing itDurham-University-Library must have expected was criticism. But despite the successful chancellor’s appeal raising more than £600,000, and rapidly being put to use, with two women from Kabul University already enrolled in postgraduate studies at the northern university, the initiative has put Durham at the centre of controversy.

The reason? £125,000 of the money used to bring the Afghans to the UK was a donation from British American Tobacco (BAT), the cigarette giant that last year made a £2.5bn profit selling brands including Lambert & Butler cigarettes and Rizla papers to smokers around the world. That, say students, academics, charities and alumni, is putting the university’s reputation at risk. They are uniting to condemn the funding of Durham’s Afghan Women Appeal, and to ask the university to send the cash back.

“Although it may seem admirable to take funds for a worthy cause, BAT’s efforts to look respectable come at a very cheap price,” says Jean King, director of tobacco control at Cancer Research UK. “The death and disease caused by BAT’s products dwarf this small award.” The cancer charity – which itself will not financially support institutions working with the tobacco industry – believes Durham may have contravened the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. That legislation, ratified by the UK government, says government-funded bodies should not engage in “socially responsible” activities that are funded by cigarette makers. “Durham University should be ashamed to have taken these funds,” King adds. “We hope that other less lethal sources of funding can be found to support the education of Afghan women.”

Those views are echoed by many groups within the university. While Durham’s student newspaper, Palatinate, reports that some on campus believe the Afghan education ends justify the means, its editorial reads: “However laudable the end, the university would do well to accept that the association with such a tobacco company is in itself damaging to Durham’s reputation as a first-class British university.” Meanwhile, a group of leading Durham academics have written to their vice-chancellor saying the acceptance of BAT’s gift “does not sit well with our commitment as a university to being ‘a socially responsible institution'”. They also point out to colleagues across British academia that the Universities Superannuation Scheme – the pension fund of choice for most UK academics – invested £214m in BAT last year. The group urges academics to “take a stand about their retirement income being dependent on the prosperity of a company which actively markets its deadly products worldwide.”

Durham University’s leadership, unsurprisingly, takes a different stance. “The chancellor’s appeal to fund a programme of postgraduate scholarships for Afghan women has been widely recognised as a pioneering fundraising drive,” its spokesman says. “The university can confirm that in June 2010 it accepted a financial donation from BAT to support this appeal. Alongside donations from more than 2,000 others, this contributed towards the appeal’s target to fund a Durham University education for five female graduates from Kabul University each year for the next five years … The BAT donation was accepted following careful consideration by the university executive committee in line with its gift-acceptance policy, which is approved by university council. Maximising the resources available to support studentships is an important way in which the university supports its educational purpose.”

But its mollification doesn’t seem to be working. On and off campus, outrage is growing. “Academic institutions should not take funding from any tobacco company,” says Martin Dockrell, for the campaign group Action on Smoking and Health (Ash). “The industry has a long record of systematically undermining academic health research – notably on the role of smoking in causing cancer, the addictiveness of nicotine and the effect of second-hand smoke.”

Dockrell adds that BAT could use Durham’s acceptance of cash to boost its own credentials. “Internal tobacco industry documents show how the industry uses corporate social responsibility to preserve its ‘licence to operate’,” he says. “By appearing to be good corporate citizens who advance the education of Afghan women, they will be tolerated despite the harm they cause to health.” A BAT spokeswoman disputed that claim, however. “We approach corporate social investment as an end in itself, rather than as a way to promote ourselves,” she says. “We have long supported tertiary education, including management and business education, and will continue to do so.”

Yet Durham’s wider community is also noticing the furore. Keith Burnett, who studied for a master’s in social science at Durham in the 1990s, has complained to its chancellor, the writer Bill Bryson. “The University of Durham should have known better,” Burnett says. “It’s meant to have an active ethical scrutiny process, which has evidently failed in this case. The only sure way for the university to restore its reputation now will be to return the money.”

Burnett – who has worked for the NHS on anti-smoking initiatives – is also worried about the impact of the BAT funding on individual researchers, and whether that was considered by the ethics committee who rubberstamped the donation.

This is a growing problem for academics, particularly as universities’ squeezed budgets put them under more pressure to accept money from large corporations, or even individuals, according to Prem Sikka, professor of accountancy and lecturer on business ethics at the University of Essex.

“Even if tobacco companies like BAT don’t pressurise university staff directly, academics will feel forced to censor themselves – they will fear that upsetting a financial benefactor might cause the university to lose its funding, or hit their promotion prospects,” Sikka says. “This kind of donation always creates a dilemma. But sadly it’s part of the increasing corporatisation of universities. There’s this idea that money from any source will do – the focus is increasingly on money and decreasingly on values.”

The Durham tobacco funding controversy isn’t the first. Back in 2000, Nottingham University’s acceptance of £4m in sponsorship from BAT caused a stream of academic resignations as campaign groups said it had sold out by accepting “tainted” money. More recently, contentious donations have included the £1.5m given to the London School of Economics from the family of the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, which led to the resignation of its director Howard Davies.

The latest controversy proves just how seriously universities need to think about their “mission statement” before accepting cash, says Jonathan Wolff, professor of philosophy at University College London.

“It’s a great idea to provide scholarships for Afghan women at Durham,” he says. “And because it is such a great idea I would have thought that it should be possible to fundraise in a less controversial manner. In taking money, universities should have regard to their mission statement, or general statement of aims, and consider whether accepting money from a particular source is consistent with their announced aims.”

By Lucy Tobin
The Guardian

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