The real rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge is how low they can go for money


Show caption Cambridge students take part in the vice chancellor’s procession before a graduation ceremony last month. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA Opinion The real rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge is how low they can go for money Catherine Bennett For despots and plutocrats, the question is which university

is the better laundry Sat 10 Jul 2021 17.30 BST Share on Facebook

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As the richer of the two rich universities, Cambridge has largely been spared, until now, the public embarrassment when – as with Oxford – an already affluent institution boasts about donations that would still look dubious even if they could be characterised as important to survival or, say, establishing meritocratic access to its treasures.

However, Oxford may now, it emerges, have to compete with its old rival for the accolade of being UK academe’s top reputational laundromat. Cambridge, too, can soar above principles and, to judge by last week’s headlines about Faustian pacts, may even prove to be more ambitious than Oxford. For while Oxford’s vice chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson, was trumpeting the generosity of an American Trump supporter she had cultivated, or more recently, the benevolence of a chemicals entrepreneur with a history of tax avoidance and environmental damage, Cambridge’s vice chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, had ideas that now make these bungs look, if not exactly worthy, fractionally less grubby. What, other than more satirical, is Oxford’s ethics centre memorialising a US private equity magnate when compared with Cambridge’s proposed deal, reported last week, with the authoritarian UAE leadership?

Maybe that’s the point. A truly enterprising vice chancellor might well reflect, on Faustian pact tactics, that the big mistake is always to fritter away the mortal side of the deal, whether it’s on pope-baiting or sanitising a billionaire. Why go for a polluter’s £100m whitewash if a glittering Cambridge-Beelzebub Institute, plus £400m in funding, can be had at roughly the same sort of reputational cost? Perhaps Richardson should have reached up, like Toope, for the stars. Though admittedly, Sheikh al-Maktoum has a touching Cambridge backstory: he learned English there and the same city reportedly hosted his first abduction of a daughter. Sheikha Shamsa al-Maktoum was kidnapped in 2000, according to allegations that a UK judge described as “of a very high order of seriousness”. She has not been seen since.

Actually, it was pure bad luck that new allegations about the FBI being misled (by the UAE) into collaborating with the capture of the second abductee, Latifa, surfaced on the same day as reports about a potential Cambridge-UAE academic collaboration. That there might be a specifically feminist resistance to this alliance, given women’s enforced subservience in the emirates, is possibly, though not necessarily, acknowledged by the mention in university documents seen by the Guardian of a “values gap”.

As for Toope, his willingness to engage with Shamsa and Latifa’s abductor is all the more striking given that his name, until last week, was probably most often associated (outside Cambridge) with a passion for young people’s wellbeing. While Toope’s university was, it turns out, considering an alliance with a country that sentences university lecturers and other critics to years in prisons that are so degrading UN officials recently demanded reform, his university launched a “Report+Support” tool, inviting anonymous accusations of “racism, discrimination and micro-aggressions”. Then again, Toope, a human rights lawyer, had previously reconciled his obvious concern for safe spaces – along with what he called a “moral” rejection of fossil fuel investment – with his pursuit of Chinese funding.

Prior to the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, Toope told Peking University of Cambridge’s commitment to China

In 2019, shortly before the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, he told an audience at Peking University, having rhapsodised on the beauties of its campus (“particularly in spring when the blossoms begin to bloom on the trees around Weiming Lake!”), about his university’s commitment to China, with its “vastly ambitious Belt and Road Initiative”, its “five pillars” development philosophy. “I was thrilled,” he said, “to discover that the theme of this year’s China Development Forum, to which I am a delegate, is: Greater Opening up for Win-Win Cooperation.”

Of course, this versatile professor may yet confound the many critics of this Cambridge-China entente, with the revelation that his ostensible servility is, in fact, just a slightly crude act, designed to make his hosts think him an idiot of almost unparalleled usefulness. Beneath it, his aim could be to signal to Hong Kong dissidents and to other victims of Chinese state oppression that, among the future benefits of his presence at the Greater Opening up for Win-Win Cooperation event will be, when internet access permits, a local offer along the lines of the “Report+Support” reporting tool, featuring additional categories of censorship, torture, genocide and forced sterilisation.

This vision must surely recede, however, with the news of Cambridge’s courtship of the UAE. Are there any ethical limits to the university’s passion for co-operation? More than a million Uyghurs in concentration camps may still appear, in some influential parts of Cambridge, a contested statistic; it could be trickier for the university to dismiss findings from a UK judge, the accusations made by Sheikh al-Maktoum’s ex-wife and abucted daughter, the alleged sex assault by a UAE minister, which he denies, on a UK literary festival organiser and the comments made by Matthew Hedges, the British academic imprisoned and mistreated by the UAE, in 2018. The problem, Hedges says of the proposed deal, is “that the UAE will use Cambridge’s name and association with them for their own gain, namely whitewashing their terrible human rights record”.

Unpopular regimes and plutocrats must be wondering, which laundry? Oxford or Cambridge?

But from the buyer’s point of view, too, there must surely be questions. Is £400m a fair price for the Cambridge imprimatur if the same honour is awarded to China and potentially, since we can clearly forget discrimination on the basis of racist brutality, any paying genocidal leadership? Leave aside the difficulties if students begin to view the university’s gifts from living tyrants with the displeasure currently focused on inappropriate historical bequests.

Meanwhile, unpopular regimes and plutocrats must be wondering, which laundry? Oxford or Cambridge? Toope or Richardson? As often with the boat race, it’s a close one, but on current form Cambridge still looks, even with uncertain reputational reserves, like the choice for the most stubborn stains.

• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist