Past relationships to rekindle

October 8, 2004

UCL is building an active alumni community for many more reasons than fundraising, writes Malcolm Grant.

There is every reason why the UK needs to aspire to match the share of individual donations that higher education receives in the US. It may be unrealistic to expect UK institutions to build endowments to rival - in size - those of the Ivy League in the US, but we can and should be competing far more effectively when it comes to the proportion of the country's total philanthropic donation that UK universities receive.

Non-Ivy League US universities, many of them state institutions, have transformed their funding over the past ten years.

Why is there a feeling that the notion of philanthropy, and the idea of asking for money, somehow isn't the British thing to do? It is only over the past 80 years that the state has taken any part in funding universities. University College London would never have seen the light of day without the financial generosity of our founders back in 1826.

Today's economic landscape is not a hospitable one. Now that the clamour against increased tuition fees has subsided, we at UCL are dealing with the reality that, for a research-intensive university such as ours, the extra income from fees will make at best a marginal difference.

The distorted rhetoric of the recent political debate suggests that whichever party is in government, we will not see a dramatic rise in the level of financial support we receive.

I do not imagine that private philanthropy can on its own fill the gap left by the historic shortfall in funding and the increase in student numbers - an increase that has resulted in a serious deterioration of the student-to-staff ratio, the scandalous neglect of academic pay and the running-down of much of the universities' estate. We in the universities must continue to argue the case for more autonomy and a new model of governance if we are serious as a nation about maintaining a world-class university sector.

However, there is no excuse for sitting back and awaiting political developments. There is much that we can do through the sums we raise via philanthropy. If successful, our new Campaign for UCL will allow us to fund vital research in fields such as women's health, spinal repair and cancer, make significant improvements to the physical environment in the heart of London's university quarter and provide bursaries, scholarships and postdoctoral fellowships.

There is one specific area in which we can learn much from the US, and that is in how we build and maintain relationships with our alumni. We now have a large, well-off and well-educated middle class. These people have enjoyed the opportunities afforded by a free university education, and many of them are genuinely interested in supporting their alma mater if given the opportunity.

We already enjoy significant support from UCL alumni, but we intend to do more. We also want to ensure that our alumni relations amount to far more than a one-way request for funds.

Alumni are part of the lifeblood of any successful university, contributing knowledge and advice and acting as ambassadors and role models within the wider community. Personally, I regard our former students as life members of the UCL community from the day of their arrival here, not as temporary users of our facilities whose connection to the institution comes to an end the day they receive their degree.

Our campaign was developed after considerable consultation with our alumni, and they will take a leading role in running it over the next decade.

I am convinced that greatly enhanced involvement with alumni is essential to the good health of any university and will help us to ensure that we can offer the same opportunities to our future students that the past generations have enjoyed.

Malcolm Grant is president and provost of University College London.

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