Most Wonkhe readers believe that universities could do with a bit more money. Whether it’s for research or teaching, for access or international engagement, we all have our passions where we feel a bit more money would open up real opportunities.
Particularly following the demographic dip, and with the future challenges of Augar and Brexit likely to add to the sector’s financial pressures, there can be few university leaders who aren’t at least a concerned about funding. Even if a university isn’t actually in difficulties, there are always new opportunities to be taken up.
Yet if we feel that universities need more money, how many of us give to them ourselves? Ah no, I hear some people say, the government should fund these activities. Well yes, it should – but the beauty of giving is that it can be done individually, in private, without reducing one iota your efforts to secure additional government funding. And if we are willing to pay a little extra through the tax system to fund universities better, surely we should be able to voluntarily give the same amount, in the meantime?
Where are the alumni givers?
Large individual gifts such as this week’s £100m donation to Cambridge may hit the headlines. Though clearly valuable, they cannot substitute for a large sustained base of regular alumni giving. The simple fact is that not enough alumni give. Charitably giving to universities is 30 times higher in the United States than in the UK – the equivalent of everyone giving four times as much, after adjusting for the difference in GDP. Whilst there are a small number of people who genuinely cannot afford to give, perhaps because they are unemployed, in chronic debt, or in danger of repossession, I don’t believe the majority of Wonkhe readers are in such situations. For myself, I’ve given consistently ever since I got a full time job, and while both the absolute and relative amount have varied with circumstances, it’s always been between 1% and 5% of my gross income.
I am not saying any particular figure is right. But for those of us who are graduates and are not in desperate straits, I do say there is both a moral and a pragmatic case to give, for the following reasons:
Repaying a debt
My own university education played a transformative role in opening up my future life opportunities, both in terms of the jobs available to me, my progression through them and my future earnings. I suspect that in private – when they’re not lobbying government about the TEF – most readers feel the same: that without their education they wouldn’t be where they are today.
For most of us, at least some of that benefit has come in the form of enhanced earnings. If the institutions that secured this for us is in need, and can make good use of that money – which we believe is the case – then it is only right and proper that we should give them a proportion of it – for without them, we wouldn’t have had it at all.
I accept that this argument is less cogent for those who paid £9,000 fees and are still repaying that debt. But for the rest of us, it should carry weight.
Paying it forward
In many times and in many places, not everyone could go to university. Those of us fortunate enough to have attended have benefited from a tremendous privilege, available to only a very small minority of the world’s historical population. Depending on our age and family background, we may have received other help, including highly subsidised or free tuition, bursaries, subsidised accommodation or maintenance casts. The teaching and wider opportunities available were also made possible by our universities’ access to financial resources.
Many of these benefits no longer exist today, in a world of £9,250 fees and no maintenance grants. While university is still free at the point of delivery today, who knows what will happen ten or twenty years in the future? And straitened resources may mean that things that made a difference to us, whether that’s particular teaching styles, access to laboratories or opportunities to study abroad.
If we want future generations to benefit from the same opportunities we enjoyed, we need to pay it forward, giving of the benefit that we have received to ensure that future generations can benefit in the same way.
Preserving something important
Most of us feel there is something intrinsically valuable about UK higher education. That could be the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge sake; the culture of academia or studentdom; the traditions and customs of an institution; the opportunity of a student from any background to study their passions; or the spirit of inquiry and debate – we’ll all have something different that we feel is beyond price.
There’s a real danger that a more instrumentalist approach to funding higher education may not end up valuing the same things that we, as individuals, feel are important. Governments don’t always make the right decisions – and even where they do, their values, and the values of the wider public, may not coincide with our own. Most universities will, when accepting gifts, allow the donor to specify that it should be directed towards a broad area, such as teaching, bursaries or research.
If we want to preserve what is precious to us, the onus is on us to make sure it happens. Just Britain’s heritage is preserved by the National Trust’s millions of members, religious communities maintain their places of worship and communities keep open vital resources, so we too should give to support our universities.
Institutional autonomy is one of the pillars of UK higher education. While there are still strong protections, both formal and informal, against direct government direction, influencing via financial incentives can be enormously powerful.
No institution could ignore a threat such as the removal of all research funding. But it is much easier for a university with a strong endowment to resist the siren-song of a new pot of money, or to ace[t a lost financial opportunity to do what it believes is right. On the other hand, an institution facing bankruptcy or course closure may have little choice but to bow to the whims of the latest blandishments from the government or regulator.
In terms of autonomy from other sources of influence, a broad network of many small donors is also much more likely to reduce the risk of undue influence than over-dependence on a single large donor or funder.
For these four reasons, we should be prepared to respond generously when our universities tell us they need our support.
Most Wonkhe articles are about government or university policy – they’re not usually about the sort of thing someone can change by themselves. But this one is different. The decision to give is an individual choice, and it takes no more than a few minutes to set up a one-off donation or regular direct debit to your university. And that donation, whether it’s £10 a month, £50 a month or £500 a month, would help to make a real difference to student in need, to a researcher, or an institution.
So what are you waiting for?