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University pulls out of Lavasa project
February 13, 2010

University pulls out of Lavasa project


13 February 2010

Tamsin Meakin:

The Saïd Business School confirmed this week that the University has abandoned its support of a scheme to build a new Business Centre at the controversial Lavasa development site in India.

The Business School cited concerns over its "financial viability".

The Oxford University facility, due to open this year at a cost of 15-20 million pounds, would have focussed its studies on the recent successes of the Indian economy, and the challenges it currently faces, through the disciplines of business and management.

The original agreement was made in January 2008 by the then Vice-Chancellor John Hood, who travelled to India as part of a tour including Gordon Brown, Richard Branson and former trade minister Digby Jones.

"Our plan did not come into fruition"

The partnership arose from the annual Oxford University India Business Forum, hosted that year by Hood and organised by the Oxford University India Business Centre, located at the University's Saïd Business School in Oxford.

Hood said the Indian Business Centre could include "new posts, scholarship programmes, academic and cultural exchanges...expanding and invigorating the connections with India".

However, he never referred to it as an overseas ‘campus', as has been reported elsewhere.

Hood also entered into negotiations with Ajit Gulabchand, the Chairman of Lavasa's parent company, the Hindustan Construction Company, to discuss the possibility of endowing a chair at Saïd reputedly worth 7.4 million pounds, although no contracts have been signed and no payment received.

The businessman previously commented on the arrangement that, "It is a matter of great pride for Lavasa to have partnered with the most respected educational institution in the world."

The possibility of creating a Professorship of Indian Business Studies in the Chairman's name is still being discussed, despite the University's withdrawal from the development.

There have been suggestions that the sudden withdrawal is linked to the allegations of human rights abuses at the site by Lavasa Development, accusations which the company stringently denies.

One human rights activist claimed that the development has turned into a "land grab", with previous occupants (mainly agricultural workers) of the 12 500 acre area pressured into selling their land for very low prices. A BBC Radio 4 programme, ‘Face the Facts', broadcast on the 4th February, investigated these claims; the University declined to comment on the programme's findings.

However, the University has emphasised that their decision to pull out has no link to the unproven claims stating,"Following a detailed feasibility study, the Saïd Business School has concluded that it would not be financially viable to undertake executive education at Lavasa as originally envisaged.

"This is not a response to unproven allegations about the Lavasa Project, which have been vigorously contested by Lavasa. It was originally envisaged that the School's executive education and research relating to India would be conducted through an Oxford India Business Centre, which was dependent upon securing the necessary funding. Such funding is no longer immediately in prospect."

The University Press Office also stressed, "The Business School remains extremely keen to undertake executive education for corporate clients in India, as elsewhere, however, and to conduct research relating to India" and did not rule out the possibility of a centre in India in future.

For the time being, the business school has removed all signs of its affiliation with Lavasa from its website and work on the development is still planned to continue without the inclusion of the business centre.

Oxford University is not the first participant in the Lavasa project to develop cold feet. The Girls' Day School Trust, a group of independent day schools, recently also withdrew their support amid the whispers human rights abuses.

A representative of the trust explained, "Our plan for a joint venture school in India did not come to fruition and our involvement in this project has come to an end. Whilst we cannot comment on the [human rights] issues, GDST is trusted by thousands of parents to inspire high moral and ethical values in the pupils in our case...We would naturally expect our partners, both in the UK and internationally, to share these principles and values."

The Lavasa site will now encompass four settlements, which will be home to 200 000 middle-class Indians. The area will include resorts, numerous recreational facilities and a golf course. Lavasa have so far retained their backing from sponsors such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Nick Faldo Golfing Academy, who have refused to give credence to human rights violation claims.