When the British Council presented its inaugural awards for US alumni of UK universities in New York City in March, American university alumni officers took note.
The alumni professionals, who compete for billions in contributions from former students and others, sensed that if awards were being lavished on American alumni of overseas universities and events were being hosted for them in the US, appeals for donations were not far behind.
And although that was not the intention, according to a spokesman for the British Council – who did, however, add that the awards were meant to promote UK universities to prospective US students – there are signs that the Americans have cause to be concerned.
With global education expanding, universities worldwide have started eyeing international alumni as not only sources for promotion and recruiting but also for money.
This subject was debated in Paris at a meeting of the board of directors of the international Council for Advancement and Support of Education. It was also explored at a roundtable discussion at last month’s annual convention of Nafsa, the Association of International Educators – the world’s largest gathering of professionals in international education.
It is only the third year that the issue has been on Nafsa’s agenda. “I think this is really only the beginning,” Allan Goodman, chief executive of the Institute of International Education, said in an interview at the event.
Because Americans are accustomed to being asked to give, they are priority fundraising targets, said Sandra Rincon, director of international alumni relations at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, who led the Nafsa discussion. “In the US, there’s a culture of giving in that way. A lot of other cultures don’t have that.”
US universities last year collected a record of more than $37 billion (£24 billion) in donations, according to Case, supported by sophisticated fundraising techniques and armies of development employees.
In contrast, many universities in other countries historically have done little to keep in touch with overseas alumni, and often do not even have their addresses, the Nafsa roundtable heard. “What we’re really trying to do is put a structure around it,” said Alice McGarvey, vice-dean for career development at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.
Some universities have so few students in the US that they collaborate to hold events in the country. Tilburg joins with other Dutch institutions for gatherings that are also supported by EP-Nuffic, the Dutch organisation for international cooperation in higher education.
But recently more large international universities have opened US offices. Initially, these focused on recruitment, admissions and research collaborations, said Case president Sue Cunningham, but “there is increasing momentum to build and develop relationships with alumni”.
That doesn’t have to mean a battle with US universities over the same pool of potential donors. “It’s not a zero-sum game,” said Ms Cunningham, who has run fundraising campaigns for the universities of Melbourne and Oxford.
And the traffic is not all one-way. US universities received $262 million in contributions from foreign sources in 2013, the last year for which the figure is available, according to the US Department of Education, and they too are doing more international alumni outreach work.
Dr Goodman raised one other note of caution: the rise in international study is so recent that most cross-border alumni still do not have the wealth to give – especially considering the cost of study in the US.
“We won’t know for a decade” how effective these efforts will be, he said. “I see it as a seed that will grow over many, many years.”