Oxford University announced earlier this month that it has appointed the Swiss firm Herzog and de Meuron (Tate Modern, the National Stadium in Beijing) as the architect of the new Blavatnik School of Government. Last year the Russian/American ‘billionaire industrial philanthropist’ Leonard Blavatnik gave Oxford £75 million, a gift it has described as ‘one of the most generous in the University’s 900-year history’. Oxford is making a sizeable contribution of its own: £26 million and land for the new school in ‘the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter’, a ten-acre site in the centre of the city, masterplanned by the office of another starchitect, Rafael Viñoly.
As well as reminding us that Blavatnik is the founder and chairman of Access Industries, Oxford’s press release runs through the academic boards he sits on (Cambridge, Harvard, Tel Aviv) and outlines some of his philanthropic activity, particularly in the arts.
There’s no mention, however, of LyondellBasell. The world’s third largest petrochemicals group was formed in 2007 when Basell Polyolefins, owned by Access Industries, bought the Lyondell Chemical Company for $12.7 billion, borrowing heavily to do so and taking on Lyondell’s existing debts. In 2009, the new company, unable to restructure $26 billion of debt, was granted Chapter 11 bankruptcy for some of its affiliates, which also protected it from European creditors. One of the banks that wrote off a £2.5 billion loan to Access was RBS, majority-owned by the UK taxpayer.
None of this, of course, has anything to do with what David Cameron has called ‘a very generous act of philanthropy’. So what is the new school for?
The Blavatnik School of Government aims to develop tomorrow’s leaders, in both the private and public sectors… It will address complex global problems in new and practical ways.
The vice-chancellor points out Oxford’s track record in developing yesterday’s leaders – ‘the university has educated 26 British prime ministers and over 30 other world leaders’ – but that must have been using old and impractical methods. It would be nice to think that the new ways will result in a great improvement on what we have now, but it seems unlikely. The chairman of the school’s International Advisory Board will be Lord Browne of Madingley, who wrote the ‘shoddy, ill-argued and under-researched document’ that recommended the almost total removal of public funding for teaching in universities. (By coincidence, Blavatnik sold a chunk of the Russian oil company TNK to BP in 2003, when Browne was CEO.) The fees for the one-year Master of Public Policy course will be £30,000.
Not all the university is so keen on Lord Browne. I recently received what looked like the usual fund-raising letter from my old college. The fund-raising part – specifically, to pay for undergraduate bursaries – was held back till the end, as Richard Carwardine was openly sarcastic about the Browne Report, the Comprehensive Spending Review and the White Paper: ‘Whatever one’s view of what has emerged, the exercise that has produced it can best be described as fractured and incoherent.’ He also attacked the ‘business-school model of education’, favoured by successive governments, for being ‘essentially and narrowly utilitarian’. The Blavatnik School will admit its first students next year.