Leader: Endowment fall highlights taxing nature of giving

July 18, 2003

This week's analysis of wealth by The THES shows that between 2000 and 2002 the total value of university endowments in the UK fell by a fifth.

Most UK universities have weathered the storm fairly well - so far.

Cambridge University's comment that its conservative investment style means that it is protected from the massive lows of the market generally applies.

But there is clearly an impact. Endowments to support research or scholarships for poor students are squeezed. Donations have suffered.

In 2001-02 the endowments of the top 500 US universities fell by £5.8 billion - a fall that would have wiped out the entire UK university endowment. For the first time in 15 years, US universities registered a decline in financial contributions because of the weak stock market.

In the UK, major donors such as the Wellcome Trust have seen the value of their endowments fall from £15 billion to £9.3 billion. They will have less money to give in coming years and this will seriously hit universities.

Cambridge has already questioned the wisdom of pushing endowments at the expense of government funding. "Building significant endowments is important, but it cannot relieve the government of making sensible and effective arrangements for investment in higher education by taxpayers in general and students (and their parents) in particular," it said in its white paper response.

This is true, but equally a poor stock market must not lead universities to underestimate the importance of endowments. Government funding is also hit by failing economies.

Universities need to diversify their income, not restrict it. And they need to think hard about what makes people give.

A key debate for the task force on giving, set up as a result of the white paper, is who should get the tax back on gifts. In the US it is the donor; in the UK it is largely the recipient.

The jury is out on which way the UK should go. But the debate is crucial - whatever the value of the stock market.

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