Indoctrinating tomorrow’s leaders

You might have thought 26 British prime ministers were good enough. No? I suppose Britain is only a small island after all. OK, how about 26 British prime ministers, in addition to movers and shakers from all reaches of the globe.

Indeed, it is utterly dumbfounding to look back and appreciate the level of influence this small city in the windy west of England has had on the shape of our world. But just like Jamal’s, the cheese floor in Park End and the fact we’re all nerds, it’s part of what makes us appreciate being here.

On the surface, then, it would seem that Oxford’s recently opened Blavatnik School of Government, a nascent £101m hub for potential ‘leaders of tomorrow,’ is a welcome stride. Three-quarters financed by Russian-born oligarch Leonard Blavatnik, the school will begin accepting students in September 2012, offering a one-year Master of Public Policy course. It is apparently the means that will allow, as Vice-Chancellor Andrew Hamilton said, a “new way” for the University to contribute to the world. And, as Oxford finally gets ready to take on the goliath Kennedy School of Government in Harvard, it is a case of better late than never, in the eyes of some.

In reality, though, it is a case of better never at all.

The déjà vu of the scheme is disconcerting. After the controversy surrounding the Saïd Business School, and the £23m donation by its namesake, Wafic Saïd, who was involved in the notorious UK-Saudi Al-Yamamah arms deal, that another translucent plutocrat is now funneling in money beggars belief. Whilst there is nothing inherently wrong with bringing private capital into higher education, there is indeed something wrong with bringing in the capital of those controversial enough to substantially damage an institution’s reputation. LSE would testify to this, after its recent experience of the worst-case scenario, and whilst our oligarch does not compare to the Gaddafis, any oligarch still comes with substantial baggage attached. Undeniably, an unhealthy reliance on any individual is potentially damaging to the ethos of academic independence and integrity that Oxford values. But this is particularly so when the individual concerned has already shown his disregard for them.

Although the Dons got the upper hand in the first significant clash over ethos, successfully altering the explicit market biases in the Schools’ regulations, in order to maintain their academic liberty, and although Blavatnik is unlikely to be micro-managing the School, it is still hard to see how a School whose existential reasons consist of market promotion will be able to approach this fundamentally important topic in a genuinely open manner. And the very last thing the ‘leaders of tomorrow’ need is the blinkered thinking of dogma: let’s please not have an ‘Oxford Consensus.’

Yet even assuming the School doesn’t create the 21st Century Chicago Boys, it is an extension of the discredited business-school mold, and remains intrinsically questionable. The idea that the ‘leaders of tomorrow’ can be ready to take on the nuanced complexities surrounding public policy, simply by being pushed through a mold, will work as well as the theory that MBA’s, who dominate finance, are equipped with the tools to execute bold leadership in crises (best before 2008).

Dogmatic Government Schools contaminated with questionable benefaction don’t create the ‘leaders of tomorrow,’ even if they do create nice shiny new buildings. Given we’re not magpies, though, that just isn’t a good enough reason. Of course Oxford must look to the future, and continue to develop movers and shakers world over; maybe even another 26 British Prime Ministers? But, it mustn’t compromise itself as it does.

Anirudh Mathur