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Just what was it exactly that Oxford University saw in the billionaire boss of Ineos?

Catherine Bennett
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

An announcement from Oxford signals that it is still very much the go-to university if you’re a tax-averse billionaire, eager for serious recognition but concerned that academic sensibilities might somehow come between your £100m and a place alongside Duke Humfrey, Godfrey Sheldon and more recent donors Wafic Said and Leonard Blavatnik.

Other than welcoming its latest big benefactor, Sir Jim Ratcliffe, on a day likely to be eclipsed by the presidential inauguration, there was no indication that, recalling the objections that followed its acceptance of £150m from the US private equity magnate Stephen Schwarzman, the university feared a similar reaction to its acceptance of £100m from the chairman of Ineos. Thanks to Ratcliffe’s concern for the accuracy of the Sunday Times Rich List, where he ranks fifth, we can appreciate that this £100m gift is only some tens of millions short of approaching 1% of his wealth: £12.15bn. His company’s tax savings, now Ratcliffe has moved to Monaco, have been estimated at £4bn.

While historical racism has become impossible for the university to ignore, Oxford’s tradition of venerating the rich is still embraced by the vice chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson. She approached Schwarzman, a Trump donor loyal through Pussygate and Charlottesville, in 2017. Other institutions may be cowed by demands that scruples be applied to donations or chilled by resignations at MIT following its mutually rewarding relationship with Jeffrey Epstein; Oxford likes to see the big picture. Maybe it’s still not too late for Philip Green College, the Jeff Bezos Chair of Reputation Management.

Now that Brexit, of which Ratcliffe was a fervent advocate, deprives universities of millions in funding, academic competition for any redirected tax savings promises to be, at least for the non-squeamish, yet more intense. Pushing for Brexit, Ratcliffe incidentally stimulated competition for his own patronage.

“This is a wonderfully generous gift for which we are very grateful,” says Richardson, of the Ratcliffe money, which will pay for the Ineos Oxford Institute researching antimicrobial resistance. And Sir Jim? He tells us, presumably from Monaco, that Ineos, a chemicals business, “in its 22 years has become the largest private company in the UK, delivering large-scale, ambitious technical projects with impactful results”. One notably impactful result was Ratcliffe’s 2020 request, from tax exile, for a £500m taxpayer loan. An earlier landmark Ineos moment: in 2010, he asked for a deferral of a £350m VAT bill and, when the (Labour) government would not oblige, moved his firm to Switzerland.

As with Oxford’s Stephen A Schwarzman Centre, which will specialise in ethics and AI, the Ratcliffe-funded research will widely be considered important enough to dispel uneasiness. Celebrity endorsements on the Schwarzman Centre website offset protests including an open letter from staff and students that mentioned “the proceeds of the exploitation and disenfranchisement of vulnerable people across the world”. By the time, last September, that Oxford announced its new Schwarzman-funded ethics team, composed of seven Schwarzman philosophers, this outfit no longer sounded roughly as plausible as a Rudy Giuliani Women’s Refuge or a Trump Centre for Democratic Legitimacy. And no one could now dispute the demand for its services. If there seemed no call for specialist ethical intervention when Oxford first accepted millions from Schwarzman, it may urgently, given the latest news, want to reconsider raising his monument or at least commission one of those contextualising plaques that acknowledges harm while respecting history: “What might look unforgivable to us today was considered perfectly normal by Louise Richardson in 2019.”

Better, surely, to react now, rather than leave it to future Trump’s Donor Must Fall organisers, to news of Schwarzman’s conduct when Trump was attempting to overturn the democratic vote? The FT reported a November meeting where, after one expert speaker warned of a coup, Schwarzman responded with a justification for Trump’s actions. When 164 business leaders later challenged Trump, the acclaimed philanthropist put out a statement: “I supported President Trump and the strong economic path he built.” Schwarzman had donated more – $3.7m – to Trump’s re-election campaign than any other US financier. Given Schwarzman’s is not a UK household name, his Oxford monument could, however absurd and tainted – ideally we’d want input from the Stephen A Schwarzman ethics team – still be seen as less offensive to standards in public life and compromising to the university than Richardson’s prostrations before a renowned local tax avoider.

Were Ratcliffe’s relocation to Monaco, his views on trade unions and Ineos’s lamentable environmental record even considered, before Oxford joined various football clubs and a cycle team, as part of the Ineos promotional effort? Does the new institute’s devotion to public health compensate for the millions Ratcliffe’s tax avoidance has diverted from the NHS? Could Oxford not, if only to avoid advertising reputational prizes unaffected by tax avoidance, have kept his company name off it? Before the Oxford promotion, Ratcliffe had spent £400m on Ineos-branded sport, designed, it has been suggested, to deflect attention from less lovable aspects of his business.

When questions, including an FOI request, were asked about vetting by Oxford’s donor committee that permitted the Stephen A Schwarzman Centre, the university would not give details. Donors expected confidentiality, it argued. Perhaps more remarkably, transparency risked “deterring prospective donors” of the type who might therefore go elsewhere. “The university competes for funds with comparable institutions.”

But institutions change. Look at MIT’s regrets. There’s renewed pressure on Yale to rethink its shrine to Schwarzman. Even in Oxford, Oriel College, which was warned of donor reprisals if it took down the statue of fellow philanthropist, Cecil Rhodes, nonetheless decided that some things are more important than £100m.

• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist