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Features

How British universities spread misery around the world

From Nehru’s India to Varoufakis’s Greece, the trendy doctrines of our universities have much to answer for

25 July 2015

9:00 AM

25 July 2015

9:00 AM

So farewell, Yanis Varoufakis. You used to be Greece’s finance minister. Then you resigned, or were you sacked? You took control of the Greek economy six months ago when it was growing. Yes, honestly! Growth last year ran at 0.8 per cent, with forecasts of 3 per cent this year. The government had a primary budget surplus. Unemployment was falling. Until you came along.

Varoufakis was a product of British universities. He read economics at Essex and mathematical statistics at Birmingham, returning to Essex to do a PhD in economics. With the benefit of his British university education he returned to Greece and, during his short time in office, obliterated the nascent recovery. The economy is now expected to contract by 4 per cent this year — an amazing transformation. Greece’s debt burden has increased by tens of billions and many people have emigrated.

But Varoufakis is not alone. Plenty of other visitors to our universities have been influenced by the teaching here and returned to their countries to wreak havoc.

Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of an independent India, is understandably regarded by many as a hero. But unfortunately for that country he attended Trinity College, Cambridge. There he was influenced by British intellectuals such as George Bernard Shaw, a socialist, Bertrand Russell, who once remarked ‘communism is necessary to the world’, and John Maynard Keynes. He returned to India and started to put the ideology into practice with state planning, controls and regulations. This was a calamity. Following his rule, India’s share of world trade fell and a generation failed to emerge from abject poverty. Only when the ideology was abandoned with the free market reforms of the 1980s did India’s growth and amazing poverty-reduction begin.

Perhaps one of the most extraordinary rulers of the 20th century was Julius Nyerere, president of Tanzania, who was famous for living frugally and genuinely not being corrupt. Admirable though he was in this respect, it was his country’s misfortune that he read economics and history at Edinburgh (as did Gordon Brown). Naturally he was surrounded by leftist academics and apparently ‘encountered Fabian thinking’ in particular. The experience made it all but inevitable that Tanzania would endure a bloated bureaucracy, shortages and miserably low growth.


Nyerere had been to the University of Fort Hare as well as Edinburgh. This is a university set up by us British imperialists in South Africa for non-British people from all over Africa. It has bred an extraordinary array of future African leaders who, unfortunately for Africa, mostly developed left-wing ideas there. Among their number was Robert Mugabe, destroyer of the economy of Zimbabwe.

The dishonour of distributing economic failure around the world is spread around British universities but the London School of Economics can rightly claim more than its share, of course. Jomo Kenyatta, first prime minister of Kenya after independence, went there. True, under his leadership, the Kenyan economy was not the worst-performing in Africa — but overblown, corrupt state industries and attempted import substitution took their toll, so that GDP growth per capita was low and, in some years, negative.

Kwame Nkrumah also went to the LSE and then to University College London, although, to be fair, he had probably been radicalised already at Lincoln University, Pennsylvania. After thus overdosing on socialist indoctrination, he returned to Ghana and put through ‘forced industrialisation’, complete with state enterprises and ten-year plans. It was the usual formula with the usual result: decades of low growth, corruption and heavy debt.

In two further cases, Britain can again gratefully offload some of the blame to America. Pierre Trudeau was introduced to Marxism at Harvard and then came to the LSE for his doctorate. He did not finish it but the LSE nonetheless gave him a finishing course in leftist economics. Under his rule, Canada introduced wage and price controls while inflation, unemployment and the national debt all rose.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, variously president and prime minister of Pakistan, went to the University of California, Berkeley, as well as Christ Church, Oxford. It is unclear which bears more responsibility for teaching him the statist economics of academia. But once he had gained power, declaring ‘socialism is our economy’, he nationalised the steel, chemical, cement and banking industries along with the flour, rice and cotton mills. Economic growth slowed to a crawl at 1.3 per cent.

Most of our British university teachers imbue their overseas students with disastrous ideas and remain comfortably here, uninvolved in the misery they have sown overseas. One heroic-cum-tragic exception was Malcolm Caldwell, a communist lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies who was such a fan of Pol Pot and his murderous regime that he went over to see it in person. He had a private interview with Pol Pot himself and was murdered later the same day.

Are there any exceptions to the rule that British universities cause misery abroad? Yes, but only when they revolt against what they were taught. Singapore’s success is due to its first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who went to Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, and his economics guru Goh Keng Swee, who attended the LSE. They did indeed become imbued with socialist thought, to the extent that Harold Wilson once called Lee ‘one of us’. But after they left the clutches of British academics, Lee and Goh managed to think for themselves and observe how the real world works. They got over much of the socialism Britain had drummed into them and created one of the most successful economies in the world. It’s easy to imagine cardigan-wearing dons in a senior common room somewhere near the Aldwych shaking their heads and regretting that Lee and Goh were ‘the ones that got away’.

Returning to Greece, one might think that now Varoufakis has gone, things might improve. Unfortunately his replacement is Euclid Tsakalotos, who studied at Queen’s College, Oxford. He did his doctoral thesis under the supervision of a professorial fellow who had formerly been a Stalinist apparatchik in Poland. The British contribution to human misery may not be over yet.

James Bartholomew is the author of The Welfare of Nations.

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