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KCL Academics Sign Open Letter Criticising Anonymous Donations after University Receives Almost £30 Million

Image by Photography Lead Emma Carmichael

Two professors at King’s College London (KCL), Samuel Greene and Eva Pils, have signed a letter criticising “the scale of dark money in higher education”.

Professors Greene and Pils are among over 120 signatories on a list that includes members of both major political parties, prominent campaign groups and around one hundred other academics. The message is led by openDemocracy, “an independent international media platform” who specialise in global investigative journalism.

The letter calls on the Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Keegan MP, and the Shadow Secretary, Bridget Phillipson MP, to address their concern “over the lack of transparency around university funding and the influence of major donors over academic courses”. The signatories appeal to both the Conservative and Labour parties to commit to including funding transparency measures in their upcoming election manifestos.

“Anonymous donations have often come from authoritarian countries where academic freedom is under threat. Yet there is currently no requirement for universities to be transparent – creating a real risk of money laundering and reputation laundering… We believe that the higher education sector is a great asset to the UK and we appreciate that universities require large amounts of money to continue their important work. But without proper transparency and accountability, there is a real risk that their reputation and integrity could be severely undermined.”

The openDemocracy-led letter signed by two King’s academics

This public call to action comes four months after an openDemocracy investigation revealed that over £250 million had been anonymously donated to UK universities since 2017. Senior university figures from across the country are reported to have actively lobbied to keep the existing rules in place and protect the anonymity of donors.

Universities argue that allowing anonymous philanthropy encourages gifts from individuals and corporations who are concerned about privacy or may face backlash from government in their home countries. Furthermore, they suggest that this reduces the financial support that higher education institutions require from students and the government.

Campaigners instead suggest that anonymity allows for benign actors to potentially influence academic policy and for universities to hide substantial amounts of money from China and Russia.

King’s College London received almost £30 million in anonymous donations during the six year period investigated by openDemocracy, although the report gives no indication that KCL representatives were involved in lobbying the government.

The University’s Policy for the Acceptance of Donations requires that the Fundraising team must be aware of the identity of all donors, even when these are not publicly declared.

“The Fundraising Partners will not accept a truly anonymous donation, in which the fundraising partners only deal with an intermediary who is not willing to identify the donor. In the case of Donor Advised Funds, the fundraising partners must be satisfied that there are appropriate due diligence measures in place to vet donors who wish to give anonymously through this or a similar mechanism.”

Policy for Acceptance of Donors, Clause 3.1.5

Roar intend to submit a Freedom of Information request to ascertain all available identities of anonymous donors to the University who awarded a grant in excess of £50,000.

In 2022/23, King’s accepted a total of £28.9 million in donations, a 158% increase on the £11.2 million received the year before. The University have a Fundraising & Supporter Development team who are required to perform due diligence checks on the legal and ethical status of all major donations. Last year, King’s cut ties with the controversial Sackler family over their association with opioid provision.

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