Alumni dig deep as era of donation replaces funding from taxation

March 26, 1999

Have you been pestered by your old, hard-up university for money? Well, so has Victoria Neumark, but she found compelling reasons to give

If, as Thomas Wolfe wrote, you cannot go home again, can you at least go back to college? What would you give to be a bright young thing again? Failing that, what would you give to help young people be bright in a similar way? Send your money now to the alumni operation of your alma mater.

Go to the ball, sponsor a boat, buy a subscription for the library, donate a fellowship. Leave, at the end, a bequest. In lieu of adequate state funding, it seems the perfect marriage of self-interest and altruism. In giving, you revisit that potent time of early adulthood - and you enable today's young adults to achieve their own potential.

It is practically 30 years since I crossed the red-brick quadrangle of Lady Margaret Hall for the first time. I was a bright young thing, entirely funded by state subsidy. Though some things beside the finance have changed - a new block or two, an omnipresent atmosphere of pop music - much has remained the same.

Then LMH was all women, rules limited male visiting. Now there are young men all over the place. But the spacious gardens, sloping down to the river Cherwell, the library open 24 hours a day to keen students, the Oxford tutorial system demanding weekly essays from pairs of undergraduates, remain the same.

LMH was one of the first two Oxford women's colleges. Distinguished alumnae such as Eglentyne Jebb, founder of Save the Children (entered 1895), and Gertrude Bell, explorer (1886), set the LMH tone - both high-minded and practical - just the tone that today is found in the literature aimed at its alumni through the Development Appeal. It is almost uncanny how Sheridan Gould, director of the Development Office since its inception in 1995 but not an Oxford graduate, sounds like most of the LMH people I know: wryly humorous about the idiosyncrasies of past academics and students, fervent in defence of the tutorial system and incandescent about financial threats to its survival.

For these are not good times for relatively impoverished Oxbridge colleges. LMH, originally put together (in 1879) by subscription, maintained by sponsorship as well as student fees, has remained high up the university's league table of results, particularly compared with older, heavily endowed, once-male institutions. At present, the college has 30 tutorial fellows, 407 undergraduates (equally male and female) and 124 graduate students. Raising money to keep up its academic standards (LMH says it needs a minimum of an extra Pounds 500 per student per year, or Pounds 1,200 per year to bring it up to the average level of older Oxford colleges) has now become a priority.

Why should an alumna, such as myself, help out? The reasons lie deep. LMH graduates are known as senior members, quaintly enough. The idea being, perhaps, that when you matriculated, you made a life-long commitment. Gould proudly reports: "We have contacted all 5,300 of them'.' The ways in which the Development Office tries to cement a sense of ex-LMH corporate identity - an annual London dinner with such speakers as Dame Barbara Mills QC and Barbara Roche MP, extending the "Gaudy'' or reunion dinner from an evening to a weekend event including families, publishing a newsletter - are all, as Gould points out, "the kind of things older Oxford colleges have been doing for centuries''. New, though, is the active involvement of current students in this identity-building, most recently in a phone canvass of alumnae over 35.

Students Andrew Radley, Sabina Pringelis, Vicky More and Jane Parslow had been bashing the phones for three weeks when I visited. Evenings spent ringing 950 alumnae to extract support had created a faintly hysterical air of good humour.

Unsurprisingly, senior members of LMH have been thrilled to encounter these diligent, unassuming young people on the phone. Over the age of 35, senior members are all female, with strong views, on subjects such as the importance of not relying on boyfriends and the value of the law library. They bark out remarks such as "Cut the script and come to the point" - and then dig out the chequebook for hefty gifts. Or they inveigh fiercely about the injustice of decades-old exam results and slam the phone down. Or they try to feed the baby while juggling the phone and end up explaining how distant seem the days of wine and roses with a toddler being sick down your front.

Yet touchingly, at a time when government policy seems ever more punitive to young people, senior members inquire anxiously about the slashing of grants and the interest rates on loans. As Radley says: "A lot had to pay for themselves, and they don't want that to come full circle.'' Following a high-profile student suicide, some are concerned about student welfare.

It is not rewriting history to recall that friendliness was always part of LMH. Frances Lannon, tutor in modern history, is compiling a history of the college. "Thousands'' of senior members have replied to her questionnaire. Hundreds more contribute to the annual "brown book'', in which senior members catch up with each other's news. Since 1890, births, marriages, deaths and publications have been shared in this way, with entries ranging from the tragic ("after a long illness, bravely borne") to the comic ("has recently acquired part-shares in two horses").

No one epitomises this constancy in change more than Lannon. We were both students together: she was then a nun. Now, with no religious belief, she applies her energy to teaching history at LMH. She characterises the students as "breezier'' than before and strong. The rewards, however, are constant. "Seeing how people change when they are here: it's always exciting when a student produces something they've never done before - when they've broken through into thought."

Do you remember that? Your first piece of thought? Won't you pay tribute to it? Appealing to that, to the memory of first adulthood, as potent as the memory of first love, is Gould's job. She loves it: she helps conjure futures out of dreams. Just as well, since we seem to have given up on the more mundane but so much more efficient mechanism of building futures out of taxes.

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