Win some, lose some

April 24, 1998

At one level, the millions who bet on the National Lottery each week (pages 6 and 7) are a convincing indictment of mathematics teaching in British schools, since a poll shows that many of them think they are "very likely" to win a big prize. But for higher education, the profits they are generating are a potential problem despite the significant opportunity they provide for a new source of capital funding.

Universities have already had a role in the biggest lottery controversy so far, the use of more than Pounds 13 million to bring an archive of Sir Winston Churchill's papers to Churchill College Cambridge. While the sum may have seemed dramatic, the idea that a new source of cash is available to enhance academic libraries is one universities are bound to find congenial. Indeed, the amounts of money available are so large that there is a risk of a bidding war for valuable documents that would pit British institutions with lottery money against rivals such as the University of Texas archive at Austin, which is an energetic buyer of contemporary documentation.

The other potential problem that lottery money brings with it is the need to find matching funds to get at it. This has already proved problematic in Manchester, where a vigorous campaign has been needed to get other donors, including the European Regional Development Fund and the Wellcome Trust, involved in the expansion of the Manchester Museum.

This means that getting lottery money is certain to be a bureaucratic problem. But the prospect of its availability is one that experienced fund-raisers will relish. Being able to tell donors that their pound will also bring in another pound of apparently free money is a sales pitch that alumni officers will be able to use to advantage.

In the longer term, lottery money is bound to emerge as one possible answer to the need for new money for academic scholarships and other purposes. Overseas experience suggests that this is a path that needs to be followed with some caution. Georgia in the United States seems by common consent to have got it right. There, a genuine need to provide places for poorer students has been met by lottery money. But elsewhere, lottery income has provided an excuse for reduced mainstream funding for universities. In the United Kingdom, where universities are battling to ensure that they keep the fees that students are paying to attend, the auguries are not favourable for lottery money being allowed to develop as a new source of funds without interference or top-slicing.

However, there is no doubt that lotteries can support significant economic activities, such as the plethora of services for the blind funded by ONCE in Spain. Higher education should certainly be aware of the possibilities. Britain's biggest gambling fortune of the 20th century came from the football pools, whose market share is now being eroded by the National Lottery. How long before the vice-chancellor of Camelot University sits alongside the man from Liverpool John Moores at a meeting of the CVCP?

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