Alms for the alma mater: British universities are taking a tip from the Americans and dreaming up ways to raise funds from alumni. Fran Abrams reports

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The Independent Online
In the next few months, thousands of graduates will each receive a phone call from a student at their old university. After a pleasant chat about how the place has changed and what student life is like now, a donation towards a new sports hall or student union bar will be requested.

Britain's universities may still lag behind their American counterparts in the field of alumni relations, but they are catching up fast. Many are branching into fields of activity with a distinctly transatlantic flavour.

An increasing number are launching telephone canvassing campaigns, using existing students to raise money. Among them are Umist, East Anglia, Cambridge and Bath. Some of the students work voluntarily, while Cambridge pays up to pounds 20 for a four-hour evening shift.

Jeremy Leighton, Bath's director of development, has set a target of pounds 75,000 this year towards a library extension, improvements to the student union and an all-weather sports pitch. He says that there is nothing new about university fund-raising: only the methods have changed. The ancient universities were backed by kings and lord chancellors, and those of the 19th century by corporate magnates. Now 'Joe Public' is being asked to contribute.

'In the US, if you do a degree at one university, an MA at another and a PhD at a third, you expect three phone calls a year. The year of '64 will compete with the year of '65 to see who raises the most funds. There isn't so much 'rah, rah, rah' here, but it will become what our graduates are used to,' he says.

More sophisticated methods of fund- raising are being developed. At Cambridge, for example, the telephone campaign is preceded by a letter preparing graduates for their call. This letter is signed by a well-known figure, who will differ according to the age of the recipient. For example, Clive Anderson, the chat- show host, has put his name to letters to younger graduates, while Sir Adrian Cadbury, a director of the Bank of England, has written to older ones. Graduates who make a donation are sent personalised thank-you packs. Anyone famous or influential is singled out for special treatment and is invited to Cambridge to see for themselves what the university needs.

The Cambridge approach seems to pay dividends - about 6,300 of the 60,000 alumni who have been telephoned in the past 18 months have responded, giving more than pounds 2m between them. Umist raised pounds 70,000 in 1992 and just over pounds 20,000 last year.

While Cambridge invests heavily in its campaigns, less affluent institutions rely on more ingenious methods. St Andrews, one of the country's smaller universities with about 4,000 students, offers membership of different clubs for different-sized donations. For pounds 25 a year former students can join the Raisins, named after an annual festival weekend at the university; for pounds 125 they win entry to the Bishop Kennedys, after the founder of one of the colleges; and for pounds 1,000 they can join the Principal's Council. Members of all clubs receive two newsletters a year and an invitation to lunch at the university, which they pay for at cost price - but only the highest payers have the privilege of eating with the principal at his house.

St Andrews has also branched out into other personalised fund-raising campaigns. Last Christmas, just after the first- year students arrived home for the vacation, their parents received letters telling them that for just pounds 25 their son or daughter's name could be inscribed inside the jacket of a book in the university library. To date, pounds 8,000 has come in, with one proud parent sponsoring 10 books.

Opinions on such campaigns vary. Clive Anderson, who read law at Selwyn College, Cambridge, between 1972 and 1975, had initial reservations. Once he was convinced that fund-raising would add to the university's budget, rather than simply allow the Government to reduce its contribution, he agreed to take part.

'Whether you are a beggar on the street or an ancient seat of learning, if you don't ask, you won't get,' he says. 'In my experience, undergraduates are usually looking around for ways of avoiding having to work. They could be playing rugby, performing in the Footlights or running a newspaper, but this experience probably stands them in good stead for a career with the Arts Council.'.

Mary Archer has helped with fund-raising efforts at both St Anne's College, Oxford, where she took her first degree, and at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she was a lecturer for 10 years. She believes that such campaigns are born of necessity, but says there are limits to which methods should be used, and believes that telephone canvassing oversteps the mark.

'I think that is going too far. While you are at school or university you should have the privilege of studying and of being young in peace. You should not have to feel you have to raise money for your own continued existence,' she says.

The culture in which every graduate expects to be approached for donations seems to be here to stay. The Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, a Washington-based organisation which oversees such activities in the United States, will open an office in the UK in May to run training events and an information centre for universities. Colin Boswell, director of development at the University of Kent, will be in charge of the operation. He says fund-raising in British higher education has developed faster than in any other European country, but the contrast with the US in terms of scale could hardly be more stark.

'A college such as Dartmouth in New Hampshire, with an intake of between 2,500 and 3,000 students at a time, has a development staff of 50. A university of the same size in this country will have about three,' he says.

(Photograph omitted)