Anthony Hilton: Why universities have to go for the money

Thursday started with a lively debate on Radio 4's Today on whether it was good or bad for universities to solicit funds from the private sector. The concern was that academic freedom would be compromised by the need to raise money. The alternative view was that universities cannot live on fresh air. Government no longer pays all the bills, so universities either shrink or try to find money elsewhere.

But it took Ben Morton Wright from the Global Philanthropic consultancy to point out how dated this discussion already is and how far the world has moved since 1996, when Oxford was divided over whether to accept £23m from Iraqi entrepreneur Wafic Said for its business school.

Global Philanthropic is geared to the new world of donations, and he tells universities, hospitals and arts organisations what they to do and how to structure themselves to become effective fund-raisers. And on the other side he advises rich individuals what to do to make sure the money they donate will be spent in a way which gives them satisfaction and will encourage them to give more.

When he and I first met in the late 1990s, in what was then a ground-breaking fund-raising campaign for the University of Aberdeen, the total annual amount raised from private donations by the entire British higher education sector was £60m. Fifteen years on that figure is £700m. Mr Morton Wright thinks with growing expertise it could easily get to £2bn. Concerns about academic freedom will never be fully laid to rest but what state would our universities be in if they didn't raise this money?