Foreign funds percolate universities: West alert, India alarmed
by B S Harishankar on 07 Apr 2020 15 Comments

FBI director Christopher Wray warned about the potential threat posed by Chinese students in American universities, not just to the government, but to the society. Wray said his warning was not just for the intelligence community, but also America’s academic and private sectors (The Chinese Student Threat, Inside Higher Ed, Feb. 15, 2018). The US Education Department has currently started cracking down on universities that fail to disclose donations and contracts from foreign governments, and scrutinizing funding to US higher education institutions from countries hostile to American policies (Universities Face Federal Crackdown Over Foreign Financial Influence, The New York Times, Aug. 30, 2019).


According to a Wall Street Journal report, the education department opened investigations into Harvard and Yale as part of a continuing review that found U.S. universities failing to report at least $6.5 billion in foreign funding from countries such as China and Saudi Arabia (Education Department Investigating Harvard, Yale Over Foreign Funding, The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 13, 2020).


Although American universities get funds from many countries, China has emerged as the biggest donor. One university received research funding from a Chinese multinational conglomerate to develop new algorithms and advance biometric security techniques for crowd surveillance capabilities. Another had multiple contracts with the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, while yet another received gifts from a foundation suspected of acting as a front for the Chinese government (Universities failed to report US$ 1.3 bn in foreign funding, University World News, Dec. 13, 2019). The findings were revealed in a letter by Reed Rubinstein, principal deputy general counsel of the Department of Education on behalf of the Office of the General Counsel, to Rob Portman, chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.


The Confucius Institute (CI) programme which began establishing centers for Chinese language studies in 2004, has been the subject of criticisms, concerns, and controversies about undermining academic freedom at host universities, engaging in industrial and military espionage, surveillance of Chinese students abroad, and attempts to advance Beijing’s political agendas on controversial issues such as Taiwan, and human rights in China and Tibet.


The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure approved a statement in June 2014 that called on colleges across the United States and Canada to reconsider their partnerships with Chinese language and culture centers financed by the People’s Republic of China, through Confucius Institutes, which places limitations on academic freedom and threatens their scholastic integrity.


In Britain, the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission held an inquiry in February 2019 into the Confucius Institutes, numbering to 29. The inquiry found that they threaten academic freedom and freedom of expression in universities around the world and represent an endeavour by the Chinese Communist Party to spread its propaganda and suppress critics beyond its borders (China’s Confucius Institutes: An Inquiry by  the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, February 2019).


The US Education Department is under pressure to take a larger role against undue foreign influence by enforcing laws that require colleges and universities to be more transparent about their foreign relationships. Dr. Charles Lieber, chair of Harvard University’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department, was indicted for lying about his involvement with the Chinese government’s Thousand Talents Plan (U.S. Department of Education Launches Investigation into Foreign Gifts Reporting at Ivy League Universities, Press Release, Feb.12, 2020). Dr. M. Roy Wilson, president of Wayne State University, Detroit, said the Thousand Talents Plan aims to lure global experts from Western universities and private companies to work in China and build its capabilities in science and technology.


The Trump administration has warned scientists doing biomedical research at American universities that they may be targets of Chinese spies trying to steal and exploit information from their laboratories (U.S. Officials Warn Health Researchers: China May Be Trying to Steal Your Data, The New York Times, Jan. 6, 2019). In August 2018, National Institute of Health director Francis Collins sent a memo to over 10,000 research institutions warning that foreign entities have mounted systematic programs to influence NIH researchers and peer reviewers.


Six Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman have provided $2.2bn to US universities since 2012-June 2019, according to the US education department’s Foreign Gifts and Contracts Report (Universities challenged: scrutiny over Gulf money, Financial Times, Dec 13, 2018). A Project on Government Oversight review of federal records found that US universities reported receiving over $600 million from various Saudi companies, individuals, and the government itself, between 2011 and 2017. In 2017 alone, Saudi individuals, companies, and the Kingdom itself spent over $89 million on gifts and contracts with higher education institutions like Columbia University, Tufts University, and University of Southern California, with each school receiving at least $1 million. George Washington University reported receiving over $12 million in 2017 alone, through two contracts with the Saudi Arabian government. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) received almost $78 million between 2011 and 2017 from Saudi Arabian sources, and wishes to preserve ties with Gulf countries.


Saudi Arabia has been the largest source of donations from Islamic states and royal families to British universities, mostly for the study of Islam, the Middle East and Arabic literature. Initially and up to 1990, papers and books on Islamic finance (IF) and Islamic Economics (IE) were printed and published only in the Islamic world and by Islamic institutions. But over the past decade, several specialized journals on IE and IF have been launched by western publishers. Islamic Finance in Western Higher Education is a much discussed topic. A major scholarly interest in Islamic studies is also due to the amount of articles published in flagship journals of major institutions.


Extremist ideas are being spread by Islamic study centers linked to British universities and backed by multi-million-pound donations from Saudi Arabia and Islamic organizations. Anthony Glees, Director of Brunel University’s Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies, stated that the funds accounted for the largest source of external funding to UK universities. In an unpublished report, Glees claimed that the propagation of one-sided views of Islam and the Middle East at universities amounts to anti-Western propaganda. He warned that nearly 48 universities had been infiltrated by Islamic fundamentalists (Extremism Studies over Islam Studies Donations, The Telegraph, April 13, 2008).


A report, A Degree of Influence, The funding of strategically important subjects in UK universities, by Robin Simcox, Centre for Social Cohesion, listed the millions of pounds that leading UK universities accepted from donors in the Middle East. Edinburgh and Cambridge received £8m each from Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia to set up Islamic studies centres (Philanthropy or propaganda? The Guardian, April 7, 2009). Simcox listed eleven universities, some with major centers for Islamic and Middle East Studies, such as Oxford, Cambridge, School of Oriental and African Studies, Edinburgh, Durham and Exeter.


Middle East scholar Raymond Ibrahim, in Crucified Again: Exposing Islam’s New War on Christians (2013) asks why the center of illiberalism, religious fanaticism, and misogyny would fund Western Universities. He says that those who get scholarships, grants and positions through Saudi petrodollars, employ intellectual acrobatics to portray the Islamic world as tolerant, victimized, wonderful to its religious minorities, and so forth. This is now gripping western media and Hollywood.


The Saudis over decades have disbursed billions of dollars in the West to propagate Wahhabism. Sheikh Hisham Kabbani of the Islamic Supreme Council of America warned that 80 percent of mosques in the US are subject to Wahhabi manipulation through financial subsidies. Marko Rakic and Dragisa Jurisic in Wahhabism as a Militant Form of Islam on Europe’s Doorstep analyze the spread of Wahhabism in Europe through the Balkans, especially Republic of Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.


India has not yet studied external funding of our higher education. The network of urban Naxals in campuses funded by China is not a new development. Maharashtra’s Anti Naxal Operations (ANO) officials are looking at the activities of students at St Xavier’s College and Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai and Fergusson College, Pune, for possible links to Maoists (Maoists at the city gates, India Today, Sept 30, 2013). Security expert RSN Singh says there are attempts to create many such pro-China leftists and ultra-leftists in Delhi, Kurukshetra and Dehradun universities (Maoists: China’s Proxy Soldiers, Indian Defense Review, Jul-Sep, 2010).


Despite such national security issues, Indian Universities have research projects with Chinese institutions. Prof. Alka Acharya, Centre for East Asian Studies (Chinese Studies) at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said that JNU and Delhi University each have ties with about 25 Chinese institutions. The academic collaboration between China and the left-dominated Kerala Council for Historical Research (KCHR) began in 2012. A KCHR team visited China in October, 2016; in December the Union Home Ministry cancelled the licence of over 20 NGOs in Kerala, including KCHR (MHA shows no charity, cuts licence of around 20 NGOs, The New Indian Express, Dec. 8, 2016).


Citing China’s support for Kashmir militants and Maoists, the University Grants Commission stated in October 2019 that Indian colleges and universities will not be able to collaborate with Chinese institutions without prior approval from the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of External Affairs (India restricts university collaborations with China, University World News, Oct. 10, 2019). This decision followed the Centre’s multi-disciplinary groups set up to help NIA choke finances of left wing extremism, in 2018.


Gulf funding to Indian universities and Islamic research centres increased in the last decade. Between 2011--2013, according to an Intelligence Bureau report, 25,000 Wahhabis visited India for missionary work and brought $250 million to propagate Wahhabism. Another key project is setting up four universities, at a cost of $1.2 billion. The radical Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith, which first set up base in Kashmir, is spearheading Wahhabi operations across India (Does Saudi-funded Muslim Radicalization Threaten India? Haaretz, April 16, 2018). According to a study commissioned by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and conducted by Thomson Reuters, India has seen a ten-fold rise in its research association with Saudi Arabia in the last decade. While institutions such as the IITs, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and Delhi University have been involved with Saudi Arabia, there has been a rise in collaborations with researchers at Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia  (Education: The pillar of Saudi Arabia, The Hindu Business Line, April 10, 2017).


The home ministry clarified in 2012 that Jamia Millia Islamia is exempt from the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (Jamia can receive and spend foreign funds, Deccan Herald, Sept 21, 2012). Radical Islamists who channel Gulf money have key posts in these universities. Controversial preacher Zakir Naik was elected to the managing body of Aligarh Muslim University in 2013, in the religious scholar category. (India Today, July 12, 2016). It goes without saying that while cultural exchanges between nations are essential, especially in higher education, care must be taken not to compromise national security.


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