Twisting in the Wind: The Shameful Treatment of the LSE

Over the past week or so it cannot have escaped the attention of a proportion of the population that the London School of Economics has been rather mired in a scandal, seemingly of its own making. The allegations surround the university’s ties with the Libyan authorities in general and their education of Colonel Gaddafi’s son Saif, specifically.

Needless to say, this has all made for easy headlines, noisy protests and the furrowing of brows among much of the left-leaning intelligentsia in the UK. The affair has now led to the honourable resignation of the university’s director, Sir Howard Davies. Yet this furore is overshadowing the great work done by the university in general and the sterling work of the LSE IDEAS department in particular, which has hosted Professor Niall Ferguson this year, to great acclaim.

As a practicing academic in the current economic and educational climate it is hard to know where to start with the accusations that have been levelled at the LSE and its management.

For years of course, the Libyan regime was a pariah on the international scene, blamed for the downing of Pan-Am flight 103 over Lockerbie and for over atrocities during the 1980s and early 1990s. It is no coincidence that the bad guys in Back to the Future were Libyan terrorists; in an age of Gorbachev’s reforms, ‘Mad Dog’ Gaddafi made a perfect foil for President Reagan.

Yet in the twenty-first century, quiet diplomatic efforts, led in part by the British government, appeared to make great strides, leading to the meeting between Gaddafi and Tony Blair and the Libyan leader’s rejection of a WMD programme. In line with these developments, and at the behest of the British government, the LSE advised the Libyan government with regard to its finances. At the same time, a number of British companies, including BP, sought to maximise the new potential that exited in dealing with this former adversary. For that was the situation as it stood until the past few weeks; of Libya as a reformed state, with whom the west could suddenly do business.

Little wonder therefore that organisations and universities were happy to trade and advise Libya since they were actively encouraged to so do by their own government! Advise Libya on financial matters? Why not! Educate potential Libyan leaders of tomorrow? No problem. And why should it be? After all, this was a country that was embraced on the UN Human Rights Council and was not seen as being worthy of inclusion in the now notorious Axis of Evil.

That the British government has allowed the LSE to twist in the wind like this is shameful, as is the all too obvious silence by former members of the Labour government. With former Foreign Secretary David Milliband due to address the LSE in the coming weeks, it will be interesting to see what he has to say on the subject, unless, of course, he cancels in favour of his efforts to seek a career in television.

During the Second World War the United States’ government encouraged its citizens to join organisations that celebrated US ties with the USSR and its esteemed leader ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin. Within a few short years this same government would accuse such citizens of being Communists as the McCarthy era purges began. The LSE is in such a position today.

The other allegations centre on the LSE’s decision to educate Gaddafi’s son, Saif. Educating an individual whose wealth and power may have questionable origins had better not be outlawed, else there will suddenly be both a mass exodus of students and with them a great deal of money from many British universities, right at the moment that they cannot afford to lose either. With less and less public money being allocated to the university sector, more and more institutions will be required to look elsewhere for their funding. If businesses and philanthropists come forward to provide assistance, great, but if not, then the bank accounts of the not so great and the not so good will look increasingly attractive and necessary if these academic institutions are to survive in the increasingly competitive marketplace of global education.

The LSE will no doubt be hoping that Sir Howard’s departure will draw a line under the issue and that the focus will now shift elsewhere. But no one working in academia or seeking a career in the university system should be under any illusions that this situation is in any way unique or that it will not happen again. Indeed, it is the proverbial tip of the iceberg and more likely to be the way of things in the future than any mere embarrassing solitary incident.

2 thoughts on “Twisting in the Wind: The Shameful Treatment of the LSE

  1. Not sure what you’re driving at here James. The problem was brought on by the LSE’s own cackhandedness in handling this. Had the LSE acted far more quickly and decisively (it took nearly two weeks for a decision on what to do with the £300k) we could have moved the focus onto the sources of funding of higher education more generally – of what is legitimate, and how universities can compete globally whilst under the twin pressures of government cuts and public ethical standards – something which you allude to in your conclusion.

    Whilst I’ve long been a supporter of universities attracting private funding, and the LSE has been very successful in that regard, aspects of the Libyan deal were highly dubious and not obviously related to enhancing the reputation of the school, including the training civil servants. Many of the faculty were in opposition, led by Fred Halliday who wrote a memo to Council in opposition. (

    Just to clarify as well, as it is an impression we have had to correct in recent days, IDEAS had nothing to do with the Libyan funding in any way shape or form. Niall Ferguson’s tenure as Philippe Roman Chair has certainly been a major boost to the centre in terms of profile (although his comments about his motivations in taking the post in a recent Guardian interview were, speaking personally, disappointing and disrespectful I thought. The next PR chair, announced last week, is Ram Guha, a wonderful historian of India (and of cricket), who I hope will allow IDEAS to bring some real substance to bear on the role of rising powers like India in the emerging global order.

    1. Hi Nick,
      Always good to hear from you, hope that your new addition is bringing great joy to your life. As to what I’m driving at, I would hope that the piece was seen as nothing but supportive of the LSE and its work. It strikes me, and I thought that the piece in the Standard tonight conveyed this as well, that the LSE has been caught at the sharp end of a situation and too few are prepared to support it. If there is anything in my piece that you think is critical of the LSE let me know as it is not the intention. It was also an attempt to praise the work you and the team are doing at IDEAS, and again, the piece spscifically did not suggest that IDEAS was behind the situation.

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