The philanthropic turn

By Robert Lethbridge –

The furious debate engendered by the introduction of the £9,000 tuition fee for students starting their university courses in England this October has had both immediate and far-reaching consequences. Whether or not prompted by the headlines predicting an overall decline in applications, overlaid by a genuine fear that prospective debt would discourage wider access, a number of older universities have been offered increased funding for bursaries and other purposes by many alumni who had themselves received a free education in an earlier age. The Ross-Case survey of 150 UK universities found that the number of donors had risen by 10% between 2009–10 and 2010–11. Such personal generosity has been particularly evident in Oxford and Cambridge, where institutional loyalty is intensified by a collective wish to secure for their successors the formative collegiate experience each generation has enjoyed. Indeed, and not just for that reason, those two universities raised some 44% of the sector’s new funds in 2010–11.

Less publicized, however, is the new reliance on philanthropy as an income stream more generally. In the context of continuing public spending cuts, starting with the 80% reduction in the T(eaching) grant and, more stealthily, the compensatory tuition fee being frozen (possibly until the next election), universities are embarking on fundraising campaigns designed not simply to support disadvantaged students, but rather to sustain and develop core activities. Oxford and Cambridge, taking advantage of a collegiate focus, as well as foregrounding institutional projects, have each raised over £1 billion in recent years. But it is precisely the widening of the rationale, beyond the needs of young people going into HE, which is forcing us to think through the challenges of moving towards a UK funding strategy very gradually creeping towards the US model. Alleviating hardship and facilitating access have an emotional imperative which does not easily translate to endowing academic posts, refurbishing laboratories or paying post-docs. Philanthropy is at a turning point.

The most significant part of HE activity marginalised by the debate about tuition fees is the funding of postgraduates. Leaving aside the number of them who are put off from applying or those that will complete their first degrees with substantial debts, here too spending cuts have resulted in a decrease of studentships to support further study. There remains the misperception that postgraduates are of secondary importance, ‘eternal students’ unwilling to move on into the ‘real’ world of employment. In fact, the throughput from undergraduate studies to advanced research is absolutely vital to the knowledge economy on which the UK depends. And our current funding of postgraduates is simply not competitive, forcing many of those at the cutting-edge to leave our own world-beating universities and take their talents and ideas overseas, particularly to the US where 100% financial packages for Masters and PhD candidates are commonly available.

It is not by chance that it is from the other side of the Atlantic that we have the most inspiring example of what can be done. Just over 10 years ago, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation made what remains the largest donation ever made to a UK university, endowing the Gates Cambridge Scholarships to the tune of $210m. Every year some 90 incoming postgraduates receive fully-funded awards, irrespective of means or background. There are now almost 900 Gates alumni, from some 95 countries and counting. What was exemplary about this philanthropic initiative was the freedom given to the University itself. The establishment of a separate ring-fenced Trust, entrusts Cambridge to invest in brainpower – unconstrained by prescription. One might have imagined, given the longstanding priorities of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a preference for research in microbiology or global health. However, the investment is more visionary than that; grounded in an understanding of the mutually enriching intellectual perspectives afforded by a university such as Cambridge. It offers outstanding young people the opportunity to take any postgraduate course or doctoral programme for which they are qualified. They are selected by Departments and Faculties in the first instance, ranked by academic merit and judged on the ‘fit’ between what the University excels at and what work the candidates wish to pursue. Only subsequently are they measured against what we might term the ‘Gates criteria’ of potential leadership capacity and improving the lives of others (both interpreted in their widest sense). Gates Scholars are thus to be found in every discipline, in addition to the technological, scientific and medical research areas. For even the ramifications of these disciplines are inseparable from the social, financial, political and cultural
frameworks in which the results and outcomes of research might be implemented.

The UK’s leading universities urgently needs other philanthropists to follow the Gates example and recognize how far we have suddenly moved from the state-sponsored continental ethos of the ‘public good’. A sign of the times is the recent £26m donation to Oxford from the widow of Ahmet Ertegun (of music industry fame). As in the case of the Gates Trust, the University retains the freedom to dispense, qualified only by the fact that the scholarships will be reserved for students of the humanities – which is both understandable and admirable, a small countering of the subordination of the latter to the heavy costs of advanced science. The annual Sunday Times ‘Rich List’ suggests that educational philanthropy is attractive to current donors and simultaneously quantifies a huge, growing and largely untapped resource. If it is the turn of philanthropy, taking over from the diminished public purse, to allow our universities to flourish, then it will need to be informed by a mind-set perhaps different from the creation of the wealth from which it will be drawn. We cannot afford a corrosive tension between control (disguised as interest) and selflessness.

Research in a university context, carried out with passion, brilliance and modest financial reward, often functions at its best when not precisely synchronized with commercial or government agendas. It is worth remembering the link between the oft-traduced notion of academic freedom and the fact that the UK’s top universities have been, in international league-tables up to now, astonishingly highly-rated. Ultimately, it will be confidence in that exceptional quality on which philanthropy will depend if it is to sustain it.

Robert Lethbridge is Provost of Gates Cambridge, Master of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge and Hon. Professor of Nineteenth-Century French Literature at the University of Cambridge. He is Emeritus Professor of French Language & Literature in the University of London. Much of his research has been devoted to French Naturalism. He has also taught and published extensively in interdisciplinary perspectives.

The Gates Cambridge Trust was established in October 2000 and has exempt charity status in the UK. It is regulated by the Higher Education Funding Council in England (HEFCE) via the University of Cambridge. Gates Cambridge Scholarships are highly competitive fullcost scholarships. They are awarded to outstanding applicants from countries outside the UK to pursue a full-time postgraduate degree in any subject available at the University of Cambridge. The programme aims to build a global network of future leaders committed to improving the lives of others.

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