Dark Money Investigations: Investigation

Close Kremlin allies among Russian donors who gave £7m to British unis

Union condemns sector for helping oligarchs 'launder reputations' – but says higher education needs financial help

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Jenna Corderoy Martin Williams
23 June 2022, 4.58pm
Oxford University alone has accepted more than £5m from Russian sources.
Pete Lusabia / Alamy Stock Photo

Top British universities have accepted more than £7m of funding from Russian sources over the last five years, openDemocracy can reveal.

It includes at least £3.4m from donors with close links to the Kremlin.

The University and College Union (UCU) today criticised higher education institutions for helping oligarchs and authoritarian governments “launder their reputations” by donating to the sector – but said unis should be better funded to avoid relying on disreputable cash.

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Oxford University alone has accepted more than £5m, including £2.6m from the Russian-British son of an oligarch who is now under sanctions.

It also accepted £3m from one of Russia's richest men, Vladimir Potanin, who was recently named in Parliament as one of Vladimir Putin’s “cronies”.

The findings come as the UK government plans to crack down on “undue foreign influence” at universities, requiring them to report any financial arrangements with “foreign actors”.

Under the new measures, universities would have to declare any donations over £75,000 that come from foreign states that are not close allies of the UK.

openDemocracy has now discovered that at least 14 leading universities have accepted funding from Russian sources. The figures were released under the Freedom of Information Act and cover the last five years.

“No university should be accepting donations from oligarchs or authoritarian governments attempting to launder their reputations,” said Quinn Roache, UCU’s head of policy and equality. “There clearly needs to be much better scrutiny of where universities are getting their money from."

But he said the government's proposals to deal with foreign donations are "hard to take seriously" when the Conservative Party itself accepts money from Russian sources.

He added: “If the government is serious about stopping these sorts of donations then it needs to fund universities properly so that they do not look to big money donors.”

On Friday, the Times reported that Oxford University had taken a £2.6m gift from Said Gutseriev in 2019. His father, Mikhail Gutseriev, is an oil tycoon who was sanctioned by the UK and is named on the US treasury’s “Putin list”.

The Times said the gift came just months after he had received shares from his father believed to be worth millions – although there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by Said Gutseriev, who holds UK citizenship.

Elsewhere, the University of Nottingham accepted funding for a Russian government scholarship worth £12,000, as well as £113,000 in funding from a Russian university.

Last year, Queen’s University Belfast was given nearly £47,000 for a “Russian Federation Presidential Scholarship”, funded by the Russian Ministry of Science and Higher Education. After first accepting the grant in April last year, the university said it has now been suspended.

The Russian Ministry of Education and Science also gave £20,000 to Leeds University in 2019, and more than £10,000 to the University of Bristol in 2018.

Heriot-Watt University has received almost £100,000 in research funding from a university and two companies based in Russia, while Imperial College London also took £720,000 from a Russian business to fund research about energy efficiency.

Cambridge University told openDemocracy it had not accepted money from Russian sources over the past five years. But it was given £260,000 from two Gazprom subsidiaries between 2013 and 2015.

Not included in the overall figures, the university also took £888,000 from LetterOne, a European investment firm that had a number of Russian billionaires on its board. They resigned earlier this year, when two of the firm’s biggest shareholders were placed under sanctions.

Meanwhile, the University of East London said it had a partnership with Russia’s Kazan University since 2014. The university said this had been terminated "prior to the current troubles", although the final cohort will graduate next year.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, academics and politicians wrote a letter highlighting how British universities are “depositories” of wealth from Russia and Eurasia.

“There is no requirement at present to publish such information on donations, so those in the public domain may be the tip of a very large iceberg,” the letter states.

They called on university leaders to conduct more rigorous checks and be more transparent about finances.

Last week, Oxford University faced calls to give back the £2.6m gift from Said Gutseriev. Susan Hawley, executive director of Spotlight on Corruption, told The Times: “It is plainly unacceptable for a top British university to retain donations from a businessman who has served as a senior business figure in Russia under Putin’s regime.

“Oxford University must either hand this money back or donate it to a charity supporting the reconstruction of Ukraine.”

The university has also been urged to pay back the money it received in 2019 from Vladimir Potanin, who was Russia’s deputy prime minister in the 1990s and is now president of one of the world’s largest metal producers.

Speaking to openDemocracy earlier this year, Labour MP Margaret Hodge said: “If it is indeed true that Potanin has donated to Oxford University, I fully expect this venerable institution to do the right thing.

“Oxford should sever all ties with Potanin, call time on the scholarship in his name, and – instead of returning the money – why not donate it to an important anti-corruption campaigning organisation, like Spotlight on Corruption?”

Universities UK, which represents higher education bosses, said it had asked universities to review any funding from Russian-linked sources following the country’s invasion of Ukraine.

A spokesperson said: “Universities perform due diligence on funding from external sources on a continual-review basis, following government regulations and the most accurate financial information available at the time.”

Oxford University has previously defended taking donations from some Russian sources, saying it has a "robust approval process". A spokesperson added that the university was "deeply saddened at events happening in Ukraine".

This article was amended on 24 June 2022 to clarify that the University of East London's partnership with Kazan University was terminated prior to the invasion of Ukraine.

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