Leader: Pets not the only deserving cause

May 14, 2004

Many academics will see this week's report on voluntary giving as just one more step down the slippery slope to anti-intellectual commercialism in universities. The culture of giving is quite different in the US, the model that British universities are expected to emulate. And even institutions that would welcome contributions from their wealthier alumni may fear that the Treasury would use success in this field as a smoke screen for evading public responsibility for funding higher education.

Both objections are understandable - there is a groundswell of resentment in universities at what is perceived as an incremental abandonment of the academic ideal. A combination of overregulation and a greatly increased focus on interaction with business is eating into academics' time and changing the nature of their jobs. But universities have to make ends meet, and there is no realistic prospect of doing this entirely through the public purse. Like other elements of so-called third-leg funding, there are inherent dangers associated with building up endowments. Big donors may expect preferential treatment for their children on oversubscribed courses, or to influence the curriculum or research. There have been attempts at all three in the limited experience of fundraising on this side of the Atlantic, while in the US it is accepted that some places at top universities are in effect for sale.

That is the downside - and one that needs to be monitored closely. But the risk of unethical behaviour is not a reason to ignore the mainly sensible recommendations in the task force's report. Philanthropy is as old as universities themselves and modern institutions cannot afford to be defeatist about the prospects for more widespread donation. British universities will never match Harvard University's endowment, but neither will their US counterparts. With the right tax incentives and a more professional approach, more modest targets are attainable. The British have to be persuaded that charity is not simply about cats and dogs or the household names that dominate the sector. Universities outside the US - notably Montreal - have built up successful campaigns in the face of widespread scepticism. As long as it is accepted that this is a long-term process that can never make more than a dent in their need for public funds, British universities can do likewise.

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