Leader: A time for giving and for healing

Fees reform has divided the academy, but the sector can agree on something: it deserves support, including donations

December 16, 2010

So this is our brave new world. After last week's landmark House of Commons vote, we face the removal of 80 per cent of all public funding for undergraduate teaching; student fees of at least £7,000 a year simply to fill the gap; and an unprecedented "sink-or-swim" approach to university survival.

And all this comes without any long-term pay-off for the taxpayer, as higher loan write-off costs under the new regime could cancel out the reduced spend on teaching. It does not seem much of a return from what amounts to a gigantic gamble on the health of England's world-class university system.

In such an uncertain climate, one thing, at least, is certain - universities will need to find increasingly resourceful ways of bolstering their coffers.

One obvious source is philanthropy. On the face of it, the prospects here are not good: if we will now ask students to graduate from university with a £30,000 debt to be paid off over as many as 30 years, how inclined will they be to make additional voluntary payments?

There are also common complaints that the UK simply does not have the elusive "culture of giving" seen in the US, a problem compounded by unfavourable tax rules that put off the big spenders.

Well, according to Adrian Beney, a fundraising consultant and former university alumni-relations chief, these are not legitimate excuses.

In our cover feature this week, he argues that there is evidence that those who pay fees value what they have paid for and are more likely to make donations than those who receive free higher education.

As for the idea of innate US generosity, he adds, it is to some extent a myth - the dramatic growth of giving to the US' public universities has been achieved in just one generation. Few excuses can be found in the tax system either - the UK offers more generous relief on gifts of income than the US or Canada, Beney says.

So there remain powerful opportunities. University managers must not be tempted to cut development and alumni-relations offices at a time when they will be desperate to save every penny. And they need to formulate a clear vision for philanthropy, perhaps something lacking when public funding was flowing so freely.

But the key to successful fundraising, Beney argues, is offering "convincing reasons why donors should give".

Surely this is a tall order when the coalition government, with its fees and funding policy, seems to be sending a message to society that higher education is primarily a private benefit to the individual graduate?

Perhaps the sector can find strength in adversity. After the anger and division of last week, and with extraordinarily uncertain times ahead, there has never been a more important time for the whole sector - from the students and lecturers who have so passionately protested against the funding reforms, to those vice-chancellors who rallied in their favour - to join forces behind one simple message: that higher education is a profound public good. It is categorically worthy of support - private, public and philanthropic.

phil.baty@tsleducation.com.

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