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Public money, private profits: BNP Paribas and the “School of positive impact”

By Thomas Depecker, Marc-Olivier Déplaude and Nicolas Larchet

Last December, BNP Paribas Bank and the Community of universities and grandes écoles Paris-Sciences-Lettres (PSL) - which includes the University Paris-Dauphine, the École normale supérieure and Mines Paris Tech, among others - announced the creation of a “School of Positive Impact”. Presented as a multidisciplinary and “demanding” bachelor’s degree program aimed at “educating future generations on the objectives of sustainable development”, this program would be entirely funded by a grant from BNP Paribas, amounting to nearly eight million euros over a five-year period.

This project has already generated numerous criticisms, such as the lack of consultation with the Faculty before its creation, its funding by a single donor, the “non-denigration” clause initially planned, or the intention given to BNP Paribas to try and “greenwash” its image at a low cost (1).

The first articles published in the press largely highlighted the funding by the BNP Paribas group alone: “A project for a university degree financed by BNP Paribas is a matter of some debate”, “BNP Paribas is buying a university course to become greener”, etc. However, this way of presenting things tends to ignore the fact that corporate philanthropy expenses incurred by companies are tax-exempt up to 60%, within the limit of 0.5% of their turnover (a comfortable ceiling of 212 million euros for BNP Paribas, according to the group’s results in 2018). In other words, the real cost of this “School of Positive Impact” for the bank would be only €3.2 million, the rest (€4.8 million) will be borne by the State, in the form of lost budget revenues. BNP Paribas is thus irrevocably committing public money, without the Ministry of the Budget (without even mentioning Parliament!) being able to decide on the proper use of this money.

It also remains to be seen for whom the impact will be positive. This money, which is in its composition more public than private, would benefit a group of universities and grandes écoles already very well endowed compared to other institutions in higher education. In a classic way, but contrary to popular belief about philanthropy and patronage, the rich firstly give... to the rich. This is clearly illustrated by the case of “academic foundations”, created in 2007 by the law on the freedoms and responsibilities of universities: the foundations that managed to collect the largest amounts of donations were those of the grandes écoles such as HEC (160 million euros collected between 2008 and 2017) or the École polytechnique (80 million euros), far ahead of those of universities, although these last welcome a much larger number of students (35 million for the best endowed foundation of French universities - that of the University of Strasbourg -, only 1.5 million for that of the University Paris-Sud) (2)... Far from reducing the already great endowment inequalities in higher education, donations from companies and wealthy individuals reinforce them.

Finally, the School of Positive Impact project raises the question of the transparency and accountability of corporate philanthropy activities, since they involve public money. While States are under increasing pressure to be accountable for their “performance”, the control of philanthropy practices is almost non-existent - as recently deplored by l’Inspection Générale des finances and the Cour des comptes. More generally, this raises the question of the way in which corporate philanthropy activities are regulated, in order to ensure that they are effectively oriented towards the general interest and not simply towards the defence of private interests.

To go further: Thomas Depecker, Marc-Olivier Déplaude and Nicolas Larchet, eds. 2018, “Entreprises philanthropiques”, Politix, 2018, n° 121.

(1) For more details, see Faïza Zerouala, « Une licence sur le développement durable financée par BNP Paribas continue de faire polémique », Mediapart, 22/03/2019.
(2) Adrien de Tricornot, « Fondations : le trésor de guerre des grandes écoles », Le Monde, 09/01/2018.

Translation : Anne Monier

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