Red faces at Cambridge gala

April 14, 2006

V-c sits through attack by Singapore's ex-PM over treatment of foreign alumni

Cambridge University has suffered an embarrassing attack its treatment of overseas students from Singapore's founding Prime Minister.

At a gala event in Hong Kong last week to promote the university's £1 billion fundraising drive, Lee Kuan Kew, Singapore's first premier and a graduate of Cambridge, launched a scathing attack on his alma mater in front of Alison Richard, Cambridge's vice-chancellor.

Mr Lee was a guest speaker at the event, which was held to celebrate the university's 800th-anniversary fundraising campaign. He recounted the bad experiences of a Singaporean student who received a terse offer letter from Cambridge that detailed conditions of entry. This, Mr Lee said, contrasted with the praise given by US universities in their offer letters.

He added that the student said she had felt invisible during her time at Cambridge and she complained that after leaving the university, the only communications she received were demands for donations.

The outburst will embarrass Cambridge fundraisers who are looking to generate significant income from alumni across the world.

The university's campaign website says: "The success of the 800th Campaign is key to securing Cambridge's future in the top rank of universities worldwide. Building on a long history of benefaction at Cambridge, the campaign aims to mobilise still greater... support from alumni and friends worldwide."

Mr Lee, who was awarded a first-class degree in law by Cambridge in the late 1940s, urged the university to help students to feel a greater sense of belonging and to communicate better with alumni, following the example of US universities such as Yale, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"It is really off-putting if the only communication an alumnus gets is a begging letter," he said.

Professor Richard, who sat next to Mr Lee at the dinner, told other alumni at the meeting: "I know we must do better at our communications with you."

Later she said that in 20 years they would all remember the night when Mr Lee "jumped all over Cambridge" before the university raised its first £1 billion, the target for the campaign that was launched in Cambridge last September.

But Professor Richard said her goal was not to turn Cambridge into an American-style university. "I can't imagine Cambridge ever writing letters like the ones we heard (from US admissions offices). But yes, there is room for change."

Ruth Gee, director of the British Council, said: "It was a friendly wake-up call from a long-standing supporter of Cambridge."

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