This article is more than 4 years old

The virtues of university giving

Iain Mansfield asks why so few people donate money to their university.
This article is more than 4 years old

Iain Mansfield is Director of Research and Head of Education and Science at Policy Exchange

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.

Safeguarding autonomy

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?

6 responses to “The virtues of university giving

  1. The author makes some persuasive arguments, but his depiction of student life doesn’t chime with my experience. And that’s a surprisingly strong counterweight, because I generally agree with collective funding and on the importance of institutional independence.

    I graduated from an ex-poly in 2001. It was a poor experience. It didn’t open up career opportunities or enhance my earnings potential, and when a student rep wrote a letter complaining about the facilities, they threatened to sue him.

    Now, nearing 40, most of my cohort are still repaying our Type 1 loans. This is around 4% of my gross income. I also give to charity but I’m disinclined to share any more of my limited funds with my alma mater – which is currently trumpeting a couple of hundred million pounds in new campus developments.

    I now work at a post-92 uni, and alumni feelings are similar here. As graduate premiums decrease, and more careers require degrees – most students will never repay their £50K loans – many will view university simply as a necessary step en route to a job as a teacher or nurse, rather than somewhere to truly open their horizons.

    We already see quite a difference in alumni giving between Russell Group universities (alumni fundraising teams of 40 – 50 people) and post-92 (teams of 4 or 5 people) and I suspect this gap will continue to widen.

  2. It’s odd to me this discussion is about fiat currency. The costs and benefits to graduates, students present & future, researchers, public services, local economies and universities themselves, are all much greater in time (taking three or more years of your career and family!), social capital (that cohort Ed identifies with) and quality of life. If many people don’t give cash every year, that doesn’t mean they won’t (or can’t) support the next generation, whether starting a career, through hardship or pursuing their interests, in far more valuable ways than “just £2 per month by direct debit”.

  3. Ian, that’s a very good point and one I should have mentioned. I think financial concerns are particularly prominent in the sector at the moment, but you’re absolutely right that giving back can be done in many ways and that giving one’s time can be as or more valuable than giving money.

    Ed, I’m sorry to hear of your experience. I suspect I’d reach the same conclusions if I felt the same. I don’t think it undermines the broader point that those who do feel they’ve benefited – particularly transformatively – should be willing to share and pay forward those benefits, but I fully appreciate that that doesn’t apply to everyone.

  4. I resonate with what Ed said and agree with Ian when he says it doesnt have to be cash especially for graduates who can’t afford it. Using alumni to come in and talk to current students or act as mentors I think is far more powerful than merely giving cash. At my present university, Bournemouth, the Alumni Team has launched a mentoring scheme for students with alumni employers and it is working really well. This really is giving back.

  5. Iain, you make several persuasive points about why alumni should give back and I agree with the comments about the value of non-financial support too. The proportion of alumni who donate is indeed quite small at around 2%, and according to last year’s Ross-CASE survey there’s been zero growth in alumni donor numbers over the last three years (

    Whilst more work needs to be done to understand this, it’s worth keeping in mind that for every 100 alumni who give to their alma mater for the first time, 76 of them won’t give again the following year ( Encouraging more alumni to give would no doubt require more investment in development programmes, but how can we justify that investment if three-quarters of the alumni donors we acquire don’t renew? We need to understand why we can’t keep our current donors as a priority.

    Having spent the last year researching the donor experience from the perspective of UK higher education development professionals, Holly Palmer and I will have more to say about this when we publish our findings next month. Here’s one thing I will say now though: there are plenty of people who work in our sector who donate to their alma mater, and when we asked them if they feel satisfied with how they’re treated as donors only 62% agreed with this. Keeping in mind these are mostly UK higher ed development professionals with an understanding of the challenges faced when stewarding donors, it makes you wonder how many other alumni donors who have no connection to the sector are feeling?

  6. It is great to see this topic being discussed by Wonkhe and the article itself, plus the comments below illustrate the wide variety of opinions on the subject. For me, educational philanthropy has been a part of my life for a very long time. Thanks to educational philanthropy, I secured a full access bursary to attend secondary school for 7 years. Having come from a council estate with little family experience of education beyond the age 16, this was a life-changing moment. It was as a direct result of this that my aspirations were raised to view university as an option – the first person in my family to do so. This in time has led to my career in educational fundraising and alumni engagement – a job that makes me very proud and one that I know first hand makes a difference. Whether it be the student who wins a prize for top performance in their course – it doesn’t matter the amount of the prize, its the recognition and most of the prizes we establish are c.£500 each. Or the underrepresented groups of students having access to alumni mentors, with regular face to face interactions and demonstrably enhanced employability as a result. Or the academic who is able to advance their vital breast cancer research a little faster thanks to donations from alumni and friends.

    As previous comments have mentioned, alumni giving doesn’t have to be financial, but it needs to be viewed as meaningful – both by the alumni giving and by the institution receiving. No one is obliged to give – whether its cash or, perhaps even harder in today’s world, time – so it is vital that those that do give are made to feel appreciated. There are so many ways universities can do this – ways that don’t cost more money and can actually add value to existing activities – for example, inviting signifcant donors/volunteers to graduation.

    I currently make financial donations to my school, my university and to the university I now work at. Being a donor allows me to talk authentically about the different educational philanthropy can make – sure, I am a fundraiser and a relationship manager, but I am also a donor.

    As the job market grows ever competitive for future graduates, there are lots of ways that engaged alumni and friends can help and part of my job is to continue to demonstrate the value of an engaged alumni community, both for current students and for the future of any university.

    Having said all of the above, I must admit that my biggest bug bear is the regular portrayal of educational fundraisers as getting the ‘begging bowl’ out and any suggestion that our work is not undertaken in a professional manner.

    Giving financially may not be possible for everyone, giving time may be easier for some. For others, perhaps their experiences don’t sit well with the idea of giving anything back, but perhaps there is a chance that in doing so, you can ensure others have better experiences. Places change – the university I went to 25 years ago is not the same today, so its worth thinking about that too.

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