Student cash gift call

September 1, 2006

Universities told to ask for donations on top of fees to pay for campus projects. Claire Sanders reports

Universities should ask students for voluntary financial donations on top of tuition fees, a conference on fundraising will hear next week.

The controversial idea of asking students for donations - just as those in England are coming to terms with top-up fees - is inspired by the experience of universities in North America.

The idea caught the imagination of John Raftery, pro vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, who toured Canada this summer with a delegation from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (Case) and the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.

Students at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, agreed to a small annual levy on top of their fees to pay for campus projects and scholarships.

"Canada represents a halfway house between the enormous fundraising machines of the US universities and the UK," Professor Raftery said. "We found that the student-as-donor model adopted by Wilfrid Laurier worked extremely well. I am sure that if it is introduced sensitively it could work in the UK."

About ten years ago, students voted in favour of this mandatory fee, known as the student life levy, which amounts to about £35 a year for a full-time student. It is governed by a formal agreement between the university and the student union.

Dan Robert, a former president of the student union at Wilfrid Laurier who will be speaking at Case's annual conference next week alongside Professor Raftery, said: "Universities in our area do not receive much support from the Government. External fundraising is really the only option if we want to make improvements on campus."

The student union and the university agreed what projects they would fund and the students received feedback on how work was progressing.

"We generally hear positive feedback from the students because they get to see the tangible benefits on the campus," Mr Robert said. He added that students were prepared to pay the levy despite being heavily in debt. "The benefits are so large that you don't mind paying the few extra dollars annually."

To date, projects funded by the levy include C$500,000 in scholarships and bursaries, about C$2 million for computer labs and the introduction of the internet to student rooms, as well as C$2 million for expansion of the athletics complex.

Professor Raftery said that the levy helped to build a relationship between the university and the students that extended beyond graduation.

Wes Streeting, the National Union of Students vice-president (Education), said: "The idea that students should pay fees and voluntarilyJcontribute cash donations to their higher education institutions is quite frankly laughable, especially when the vast majority of them believe their education should be free.

"With students' personal debt spiralling and many students' parents having to dig deeper to finance their child's time at university, the NUS feels sure that any requests in this country would fall on deaf ears, and understandably so."

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