The following article by Jenna Corderoy and Billy Stockwell was first posted by openDemocracy. It shows that  the UK’s  top universities privately lobbied the government to keep secret the names of wealthy foreign donors. Russell Group leaders lobbied the government to keep names of foreign donors secret.


An 18-month investigation found more than £281m in anonymous donations has poured into so-called ‘Russell Group’ universities since 2017, much of it from foreign donors.

The lobbying campaign saw Cambridge University’s former vice chancellor tell a government adviser of his “dismay” at attempts to improve transparency. He said the university’s fundraising abilities could be “severely impacted” unless foreign benefactors remained secret.

Other universities privately wrote of “celebration” after learning that they could keep the identity of givers under wraps.

But records seen by openDemocracy reveal that university bosses have courted authoritarian regimes, controversial companies and “Chinese billionaires” for funding.

In one case, Oxford University accepted a mysterious £10m donation that was “facilitated” by the president of Azerbaijan’s sister-in-law. The university is so insistent on keeping the donor out of public scrutiny that it is going to court to block a Freedom of Information request from openDemocracy.

The identities of 68 Oxford donors have been kept anonymous since 2017, including at least ten who gave more than £2m each.

At Cambridge University, documents reveal its major benefactors have previously included fossil fuel giants, tobacco and arms companies. But the university is now fighting to keep a list of its recent donors secret.

Conservative MP Robin Walker, who chairs Parliament’s education select committee, told openDemocracy: “Universities are hugely important institutions and as they are in receipt of large amounts of public money it is beholden on them to be transparent about their other sources of funding – and particularly those from overseas.”

Anonymous donations

Documents show how the Russell Group’s 24 universities – often regarded as the UK’s most respected higher education institutions – have repeatedly agreed to hide the identities of wealthy donors.

Although university officials are usually aware of a donor’s identity, they often promise to keep it private.

Oxford University alone accepted more than £106m in anonymous donations – the highest amount of any Russell Group university. This came from just 68 donors, each giving an average of more than £1.5m. When asked what the money was spent on, the university merely referenced general areas such as “medical science” and “sports”.

Cambridge University refused to disclose the exact amount it has received in anonymous donations, but said the figure was between £25m and £49.9m, with the money going towards laboratories and a business school.

King’s College London received over £28m from secret funders, while Durham, Manchester and Edinburgh also accepted large sums.

While most donations were from the UK, others were from wealthy individuals and companies abroad, including China, Switzerland, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Lobbying campaign

Last year, MPs tried to improve transparency over overseas donations. Led by Conservative backbencher Jesse Norman, they introduced proposals to force universities to publish the names of any foreign donor who gives a university more than £50,000.

Ultimately, the move failed: it was massively watered down by the government and Norman described it as a “missed opportunity”.

Emails obtained by openDemocracy now expose a coordinated lobbying campaign by university bosses in a bid to keep their funding secret.

Writing to a government adviser, Cambridge University’s vice-chancellor at the time, Stephen Toope, said the proposals would “have a hugely damaging impact on our philanthropy”.

He said: “Many donors, especially those from countries that place emphasis on privacy as important, may feel that their giving is a private matter and expect high levels of donor privacy to be upheld by the institutions that they give to.”

Officials from Cambridge University also held private meetings with a number of special advisers in Whitehall.

Toope added that the transparency proposals would result in “a very substantial additional burden of red-tape”.

John Heathershaw, professor of international relations at the University of Exeter who helped develop the proposals, said the amendment was needed “to make influence on research and reputation laundering visible”. He added: “It is not excessive and was modelled on a legal requirement which has existed in the United States for nearly 40 years.”

Meanwhile, Colin Riordan – who was then Cardiff University’s vice chancellor – spoke of “celebration” after finding out the law would not apply in Wales. It came after he consulted the Russell Group for advice.

A Cardiff official later wrote: “I have reiterated to the Russell Group that we share wider concerns being raised about the amendment, and they will continue to keep us appraised of their work to lobby against it.”

When questioned by openDemocracy, a spokesperson claimed: “We do not accept anonymous donations and all donors are subject to our due diligence checks. However, we respect their right to remain anonymous if they so choose.”

Lobbying efforts were also made by Universities UK, an advocacy organisation for higher education bosses. An email raised “concerns” with the transparency proposals, adding: “[We] are in conversations with the Department for Education and Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy about its implications.”

A further email from Universities UK, sent in June last year before the law was signed off in its watered down form, said: “We will continue to engage with the DfE on our concerns about the Bill, and a parliamentary briefing will be circulated to MPs in advance of the debates…”

Responding to our investigation, a senior legal researcher at the campaign group Spotlight on Corruption, George Havenhand, called for “far greater transparency” around foreign donations.

“When universities accept secretive donations from dodgy companies and unsavoury regimes, they open the door to undue influence and potentially to laundering the proceeds of crime,” he said.

‘Chinese billionaires’

The lobbying campaign came amid a huge wave of controversial donations, including money from authoritarian countries where academic freedom is under threat.

Last year, openDemocracy revealed large sums that Oxford had accepted from sources in Russia. It was also reported that universities had accepted millions from institutions linked to the Chinese military.

Analysis by openDemocracy now reveals that Russell Group universities took at least £139m from Chinese sources between 2017 and 2023. This includes large sums from Huawei, which has been banned from the UK’s 5G phone network over security concerns.

Sheffield University told us it had received a research grant worth more than £100,000 in 2017 from China Electronics Technology Group Corporation, which has been accused of involvement in the mass surveillance of Uighur Muslims. In 2021, the University of Manchester cancelled an agreement with the company.

And Exeter University received donations from Xi Jinping’s alma mater, Tsinghua University, where academics have been accused of being the “ideological architects” of Uighur oppression.

Emails obtained by openDemocracy also shed light on fundraising discussions held by Oxford University in 2019. In one message, the then vice chancellor was briefed on the university’s “ability to draw Chinese government funds to the UK”, saying that “funds are now flowing”.

It adds: “Your office is currently looking at potential dates to host the Chinese billionaires.”




also see:-

The Uighurs and the Palestinians – Chinese student, International Marxist Humanist Organisation

Omnicide – Mike small, bella caledonia

How big business took over the Labour Party- Adam Ramsay, openDemocracy

Charity loophole lets Us donors give far right donors $272m in secret