A few months ago I had a phone call from a young medical student at the Oxbridge college I was affiliated to when I did my master’s degree. We started having a nice chat, she asked me what I was up to now, and what kinds of things I’d been involved in through the college during my time there. Social events and casual football, in the main, I said, because I was mostly working myself ragged on my studies. And then came the shift, as she said, “Well, I was wondering if you’d be in a position to make a donation, however small, to help the college support things like the sports teams and so on.” That wasn’t verbatim, but you get the gist. She was clearly trained to look for a way in – it was very smooth. The short answer was no, I wasn’t in a position to donate, but the longer question was, well, why should I?
I’ll try and reason this through. If we pay for our degrees, the money we hand over is to cover the teaching, buildings, library facilities and so on. If I study hard and then have a successful career, it may be partly due to what I learned, but more due to further effort and experience gained beyond that degree. Why is the university due any additional payment? If I joined a gym, got ripped and then found a partner on the basis of that (let’s ignore the shallowness in this instance, analogies are never perfect) would I go back to the gym and present them with a monetary token of my appreciation? I doubt it. So why are alumni donations somehow OK? Or are they not? One of the few places I’ve read about this is in a canonical book on higher education by the late American academic, Bill Readings. He argued that these donations are a mental sleight of hand, where you convince yourself that you’re donating to an entity that serves society, even though you’ve also had to pay for your degree.
I didn’t pay to do my undergraduate degree, paid for my master’s, and was then on a scholarship for my PhD. Am I duty bound, in some way, to pay again? Who do I pay – is one level more deserving than the others? Where I was subsidised, it was taxpayer’s cash. I pay my taxes, and hopefully my degrees have made me a better teacher, a better researcher, a better citizen. Why should I pay more? I didn’t pay a bonus to the NHS when they wired my elbow back together last year, because it’s (still, just) a taxpayer-supported system. We all pay, and the people who need help get it. Higher education here used to be the same.
I’ve studied at three different universities – the first one that wasn’t even a university yet. I wasn’t aware of any alumni donations in the mid-1990s when I did that degree, and they’ve never contacted me to ask for anything. They never contact me at all, as it happens – perhaps because I was there before email really took off. I’ve just been browsing their website, though, and I can’t find anywhere to donate money. I then started my postgrad journey 10 years later at somewhere that’s been a university for 800 years, and finished off at one that’s just over a century old. The ancient one is by far the worst offender in calling for cash. It started at graduation. Half of it was in Latin, surrounded by pomp and circumstance in ancient magnificence, with a plea at the end of the eminent speaker’s stirring words: “Don’t forget us when you’re successful, remember to give back in return for what we’ve done for you”. It’s been relentless since them, particularly by email. “We just want to keep in touch, here’s what’s going on, network with other Oxbridgians in your area…and donate here.” I’m sure they don’t really care how I am. I wish they’d leave out the warm, fuzzy subterfuge and cut to the chase.
There’s a (UK) history lesson in all of this. If we go back to universities before the Enlightenment, they were essentially training theologians, medics, and lawyers. They were extensions of the church, by and large, and churches have a long tradition of collecting funds to support their charitable work. (I’m not going to crack that topic open, it’s neither the time nor the place.) Back in the day, people would bequeath cash, trust funds and land, to their alma mater. Some Oxbridge colleges are wealthier than others, largely depending on how old they are. I don’t know if this is an urban myth, but the story goes that you can walk from Oxford to Cambridge – about 90 miles – without stepping off land owned by the colleges of the two universities. Whether those alumni were buying absolution, avoiding inheritance tax or if it was genuine philanthropy, I don’t know, but it was somehow in keeping with the spirit of the thing. Excuse the pun.
If we fast forward to the 20th century, then there were no tuition fees and the state supported the whole kit and caboodle. UK universities had – and still have, bar two – charitable – non-profit – status. The idea was that academics can research/study important things, while graduates prop up society/the Empire, run the law courts, heal people, turn the wheels of commerce, and so on. Post-Second World War, the numbers of people studying rose because more people were completing secondary education and there was a rising demand for degree holders. The state paid because education was seen as a public good, a social benefit, and that made sense (it still does). This argument held until the late 1990s when fees began to be introduced. Student numbers around then skyrocketed – encouraged by governments who saw the mass production of graduates (false, as it happens) as a way of creating economic growth, and those governments are now less willing to pay for it. It’s an investment in your future, they say. But why should we pay something back, or is it their investment in us, that we paid for? I’m confused.
Is it perhaps a tradition that’s lasted from medieval times, or is it something else? Some of this is certainly about competition. Top universities nowadays are scrabbling to maintain their national and international status, and funding is hard to come by. Every penny counts, and the ones with the fattest wallets have the best facilities, do the most research, attract the best academics/students, create the most spin-off companies and patents, and thus stay ahead of the competition. Tapping up the alumni is a lucrative way of fuelling that engine. The oldest universities are already the wealthiest anyway, and they’re the ones whose graduates have a better chance of being successful – and are therefore more able to donate back. Some universities in the US allocate a portion of their annual intake to the children of alumni and/or donors, which is about as unmeritocratic as it gets, but it makes good business sense. There’s a distinction in here somewhere between philanthropy in donating to good causes such as important research and asking alumni to dip into their pockets periodically. Getting the new business school or a professorship named after you is a vanity project – something else entirely. The state should, I think, support universities to the point where they don’t need to look elsewhere. I just can’t get my head around the moral logic of the thing, whichever way you slice it – let’s face it, alumni donations are just weird.