Hell was best fundraiser

April 19, 1996

In more religious times the fear of hell, of long spells in purgatory, or of divine retribution provided a powerful motive for philanthropy. "Five hundred poor have I in yearly pay who twice a day their withered hands hold up toward heaven to pardon blood," Shakespeare's Henry V reminded his God on the eve of Agincourt, praying that his father's sin of usurpation and murder should not be visited on him "though all that I can do is nothing worth, since that my penitence comes after ill, imploring pardon."

Today, with hell and purgatory closed down, we have trouble with the notions of penitence, expiation and redemption - and trouble accepting for good causes money made from bad ones. Once it was easier. Balliol College, Oxford, where a part-time professorship in European Thought is being set up (originally with money from Gert-Rudolf Flick), owes its own foundation to a widow's hope of redeeming the soul of a husband who was as much a criminal in his day as Flick's Nazi grandfather. Indeed, many are the benefactors of universities here and elsewhere who made their money from dubious dealing, including slavery. Once forgiveness was the province of the Almighty - and the needy profited by sinners' desires to placate Him. Now it appears to be the province of the senior common room.

Universities have been supported almost exclusively by the taxpayer in recent years. Living off the moral earnings of the many, they have not had to worry too much about where the next meal was coming from. But that is changing. Tax revenue is now insufficient and the pillorying of Labour's shadow transport minister, Clare Short, for her public-spirited view that she - with an MP's salary plus an MP's widow's pension - could afford a bit more tax, suggests it will remain so. Universities now have to beg, borrow or earn the additional money they need to maintain the standards they value.

Begging will not be easier after Dr Flick's experience, particularly given Oxford University's woeful inability to defend him and its own decision to accept his gift. They must now repay the Pounds 360,000. There will be fewer big gifts if benefactors have to run the gauntlet of "the congregation of dons" before their generosity is accepted as one of Dr Flick's leading opponents, Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, would like. Beggars who want the luxury of picking and choosing - and who expect to expose donors to public mauling - must find other ways to live.

That leaves borrowing and earning. Borrowing, as our Synthesis on Campus Services this week shows, is a solution which, if it goes beyond modest limits, can drain universities of money they need for their core business of teaching. It also rapidly makes it even more necessary to beg or to earn.

Earning a living, in many ways the most honourable solution, implies switching to more commercial attitudes. This can involve, for example, exploiting catering and conference facilities for profit, charging fees for students, and channelling academics' outside earnings and consultancy through their university. Such changes make many academics uneasy and are often fiercely resisted.

The harsh fact remains, however, that universities are short of money and ways of getting more are limited. It should be incumbent on those who prefer universities to be in a position to be picky about their benefactors, to come up with alternative ways of bridging a funding gap that is growing at an alarming rate.

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