Cheque-book education

November 4, 1994

Ngaio Crequer traces the snap, crackle and pop of universities' attachment to Mammon.

Universities that receive money from breakfast cereal foundations may raise eyebrows, but there is a long tradition of financial support from "vulgar" trade, the unacademic, those who sought post-mortem insurance, and those who were simply rogues.

In 1268, John Balliol, a brigand who had served in prison, was brought to justice by the Bishop of Durham. His penance was to found a house for poor scholars in Oxford. The robber-barons of yesterday have been replaced today by millionaire car-makers or mail-order industrialists. The need now is as great as it was then.

In the Middle Ages the royal family effectively began the practice of endowing chairs. The oldest chair at Oxford is the Margaret professorship of divinity. It was founded in 1502 by Henry VII's mother Margaret, Countess of Richmond, and was endowed with 20 marks annually. She endowed a similar chair at Cambridge.

In 1540 in Cambridge, Henry VIII endowed the five regius professorships of divinity, law, physics, Hebrew and Greek. Six years later he endowed the chairs of divinity, civil law, medicine, Hebrew and Greek at Oxford, each with an annual stipend of 40 marks. Now, in practice, the Prime Minister makes the appointment.

Many of the great civic universities were founded by the Victorian philanthropists. Leeds textile manufacturers, the Nussey brothers, visited the 1871 Paris exhibition and saw a high standard of technical education missing in England. They made the first moves to set up a college of science, later to become the university.

John Owens, who had made his fortune in the cotton trade, gave nearly Pounds 100,000 to found a university college, without any religious tests for entry, in Manchester. Sir Josiah Mason, a wealthy self-educated industrialist, gave thousands of pounds towards establishing a science college -- the precursor of Birmingham University.

In Nottingham, a local alderman addressed a public meeting about the possibility of establishing a university. His remarks were reported in the press and he was invited to St Helier, in Jersey, where a Sir Jesse Boot was then living. "You'll want a lot of money for this sort of thing, won't you?" he said. "How much have you got?" At the reply "To be candid, not a ha'penny," Sir Jesse said: "I'll send you a cheque from London tomorrow night for Pounds 50,000."

It was the first of many cheques. Boots the Chemist continues to be a major benefactor today.

The older universities have been in the business of seeking endowments for many years. For the new universities it is more difficult.

"There are three ways of doing it," said David Warner of the University of Central England. "One is to get a large endowment, the interest of which will pay for the post. I think the going rate is about Pounds 3 million." With the second method a sponsor puts up an amount of money for three to five years, but the institution has to shoulder the costs at the end of that time. The third way is to top-up sponsorship: "This is the way that those of us in the poor sector operate. It would be unrealistic to assume that someone is going to come along and give us Pounds 3 million.

"Under our scheme the university pays for the substantive post, and the sponsor pays a top-up, anything between Pounds 5,000-Pounds 10,000."

"They get the post named after them. We give part of the money to the individual and part to the institution. At times we have had up to 40 of these posts, and they have not all been chairs."

Universities have always been in the business of recognising benefactors by continuing to honour their names. Merton College, Oxford, is named for Walter de Merton, or more recently Robinson College in Cambridge after Sir David Robinson: radio rentals, and horseracing.

Nuffield College, Oxford, is named after the motor car manufacturer, while Liverpool Polytechnic, when it became a university, took on the name of John Moores, benefactor and pools millionaire.

The Ford Foundation has long been in the business of endowing chairs. There is a Ford chair of mechanical engineering at Nottingham. At Oxford there is the Rupert Murdoch chair in language and communications; at Cambridge the Guinness chair of management studies.

Furniture retailer MFI sponsored the United Kingdom's first professorship in retailing in 1986 at Manchester. The Lucas professorship of manufacturing systems engineering is based at Liverpool John Moores University. The Sainsbury chair in agribusiness marketing and management is at Wye College, London.

The reason behind all this spending lies in education's high status. Companies seek "endorsement by association," says David Warner. Companies also wish to avoid costly research and development. By sponsoring, they can have a foot in the door when new breakthroughs need exploiting.

Companies can also establish contact with potential future employees. Others will sponsor if colleges are near their own factories, such as Kodak investing at the University of Westminster.

Earlier this year the governors of Manchester College, Oxford, caused a stir when they proposed to rename the college after the father of its chief benefactor. Sir Philip Harris, a carpet magnate, had offered the college Pounds 3.6 million to help it to become a full member of the university. The governors had suggested the college be renamed the Manchester Academy and Harris College.

But there was opposition from the Unitarian Church, which founded the college in 1786. Sir Ralph Waller, principal of Manchester, said at the time that Sir Philip had been very generous in supporting the college. "There is a long tradition in Oxford of acknowledging the generosity of people who have helped and supported colleges, for example Wadham and Wolfson colleges."

In the end the row died down and the change was approved. At the same time dons agreed to rename Rewley House, Oxford's centre of part-time education, as Kellogg College. There were some derisory remarks about breakfast cereals, but the decision was in recognition of Pounds 9 million of funding over ten years by the Kellogg Foundation, one of the world's largest educational charities.

Oxford University formally wound up its appeal, the Campaign for Oxford, only last month. after it raised more than Pounds 340 million the most successful fund-raising campaign ever undertaken by a British educational institution. Launched in 1988 it was so successful that the original target of Pounds 220 million was surpassed. The money, from corporate donations, research grants and contracts, has helped to fund 117 academic positions, to modernise the Bodleian Library and Ashmolean Museum. Cambridge, which launched its own appeal a year later than Oxford, has raised Pounds 151 million. It does not include research grants or college projects in the figure.

The London School of Economics, set up in 1895 with the support of a Pounds 10,000 bequest, established a foundation two years ago to be the school's fund-raising and alumni arm. It celebrates its centenary next year and has a Pounds 40 million appeal to fund academic activities.

Mike Smithson, director of fund-raising, said: "We probably launched the first modern appeal in the 1970s when we were looking to fund a new library. We raised Pounds 2 million which was a considerable sum then."

Universities without longevity have to be creative. The new universities often do not have huge data banks of graduate names. But South Bank University has been successful in contacting graduates of the National College of Refrigeration, Heating, Ventilation and Fan Engineering, set up in the 1940s. Its 100-year-old national bakery school is well supported by modern industry.

No university is now without its development office, although links with industry can be diverse. "What is exciting is the number of professors going into industry and founding their own companies," said Mike Weber, director of industrial liaison at Edinburgh University. The department of electrical engineering there developed the world's smallest video camera, just over one inch high. The marketing of the camera is handled by a company owned by the university, and one of its professors is the managing director. In another case a professor organised a management buy-out of a university trading concern.

The professors are still available for teaching, and the university gets a financial spin-off. The traffic between business and academia has long been a two-way process, with tangible benefits to both.

Ngaio Crequer is a specialist education journalist.

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