Will your gift-horse kick?

February 6, 1998

Oxford is in trouble; UMIST is in trouble. The THES investigates the price of private finance

Fundraising, once the domain of Oxford, Cambridge and a few other elite institutions, is now a growth industry.

Development offices have sprung up in old and new universities over the past five years, according to CASE, the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. Income from private sources has soared (see graph). Nottingham University, for instance, has this week announced a Pounds 2 million gift from industrialist and benefactor Sir Harry Djanogly as part of its target to raise Pounds 30 million over the next five years.

CASE executive director Colin Boswell said ethical issues around fundraising were taken seriously by most universities but problems arose when there was a lack of unanimity among the staff. "Agreeing guidelines can often be a fraught business," he said.

Durham University is trying to draw up guidelines to cover money raised for research. Spokesman Keith Seacroft said the task was extremely complex. "It's a question of where to draw the line," he said. "Take donations or bequests, for instance. Are we going to find out where an individual's money has come from, whether they were a shareholder in, say, a tobacco firm? It is a far from clear picture."

Constructing wording that would form a workable guideline without imposing restrictions on research was particularly problematic, Mr Seacroft added. "The university must be open to conducting an inquiry freely and to publicise the results. We are trying to find a way of enabling us to do that while not getting involved in work that might involve unnecessary suffering."

As a newcomer to fundraising, York University is finalising a substantial sponsorship deal to fund a new chair. Spokeswoman Hilary Layton said universities needed to examine ethical issues around fundraising very carefully. "In some instances it is becoming the dominant activity that drives projects forward and can change the way universities operate," she said. "Conflicts of interest are almost inevitable."

De Montfort University is also starting to get into the fundraising game, according to pro vice-chancellor Mike Brown who said a development office was being established and a professional director of development sought. "I doubt that we shall be adopting some of the more mercenary approaches favoured by some places," he said.

British Library chairman John Ashworth said much of the muddle surrounding universities' relationships with their backers stemmed from misguided attempts to handle commercial contracts in an academic context. The solution was to set up an arm's-length office through which to channel donations and explain guidelines unambiguously. The former head of Salford University and the London School of Economics said he had once turned down a gift of Pounds 1 million when it became clear the donor's expectations were unacceptable to the university.

Leader, page 13

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