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.