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How independent are tax academics?

Many academics who specialise in tax law also work for commercial tax consultancies. It would very much seem as though the combination of different roles can hamper independent research, says Jan Vleggeert in his inaugural lecture on 30 October. Tax avoidance and other hot topics therefore do not receive the attention they deserve.

By no means all academics work exclusively at a university. It is quite common for legal academics to do other work in addition to their academic career, for instance for a tax consultancy or the tax authorities. But these ‘two hats’ can lead to conflicts of interest, warns Professor of Tax Law Jan Vleggeert. He can see it happening in his own field.

Dividend tax

Vleggeert has noticed how professors with a commercial interest often adopt a stance that reflects the interests of the client. For example, in the discussion on abolishing dividend tax, professors with a commercial interest proved to be in particular favour of the proposal, whereas a few professors without such a commercial interest were vehemently against it.

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Hardly anyone likes to pay tax. That’s true for private citizens, but also for many multinationals. To maximise their profit, some companies stash their income in tax havens. How exactly does this work? And are there other options? We took a crash course.

More critical than colleagues

In that respect, Vleggeert is more critical than many of his fellow tax academics, he readily admits. ‘The prevailing opinion in the academic tax world is that there is sufficient guarantee that the two hats are independent,’ he says. These legal academics say that any academics who are unable to keep these two hats separate have immediately forfeited their academic credibility.

Integrity is not just ‘from within’

Vleggeert counters that he doesn’t really believe in the argument that integrity ‘from within’ is enough to prevent conflicts of interest. ‘Some topics receive scant attention, if any at all, in the literature on tax, presumably because from a commercial perspective it is better to leave these topics well alone: a topic such as state support, for instance. If a research project is likely to harm the interests of a client, many academics who are employed by a second organisation prefer to opt for a safer topic.’ This creates blind spots in the discipline.

One hat

According to Vleggeert, it is up to universities to defend the independence of tax research: ‘The tax professor of the future will have more than enough with one hat, his or her university hat.’

Text: Merijn van Nuland

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