There was a time when each year a number of places at Oxford University were reserved for the offspring of major benefactors. But money no longer appears to provide any such guarantee after it emerged that one of the university's most generous donors had withdrawn a pledge of £100,000 and severed links with his old college after it rejected his son.
Philip Keevil, a prominent City banker who has already given more than £100,000 to the university over the past 15 years, expected his generosity to be rewarded with preferential treatment for his children.
Mr Keevil, one of about 150 individual benefactors who run fund-raising campaigns for Oxford, said he had been led to believe there would be a "slight bias" towards the offspring of donors. But the former Trinity student, whose elder son studied at the same college, had his dream of sustaining the family tradition shattered when his second son received a rejection letter from the college over the weekend.
Mr Keevil, managing director and head of European mergers and acquisitions at Schroder Salomon Smith Barney, rang the university on Monday to see if academics might reconsider.
On being told that nothing could be done, he quit as co-chairman of Trinity College fund-raisers. He is also considering stepping down from the fund-raising board of the Bodleian Library and Oxford's Said Business School. Mr Keevil said he had lost all motivation to raise funds for his old college after it rejected his son.
He said: "People may say this is just sour grapes and pretty obviously I am very sad.
"The children of old members do get turned down, but someone who has been a very close friend of the college for a very long period of time perhaps should have received a 'heads-up' rather than the usual letter from the tutor for admissions.
"Universities have perhaps not yet realised that they can only really raise money from the old members. That means they have to feel they belong and they are being fairly treated. Probably that means that, given two equal candidates, they will perhaps have a slight bias towards the family whose family has been generous."
Trinity and the university expressed their regret at his decision yesterday but insisted that the fairness and transparency of Oxford's admissions were paramount.
Oxford's dons are particularly sensitive to accusations that they run an "old boys' network" after the Chancellor Gordon Brown attacked the university two years ago for rejecting an application from Laura Spence, a state school pupil who subsequently won a scholarship to study at Harvard University in the United States.
However, senior university figures admitted that they still regularly come under pressure to pull strings for benefactors. Until the early Eighties this tactic might have succeeded as some Oxford colleges had a few places which could be awarded to the children of past students or major donors. But these "founder's kin" places were outlawed in a major admissions review in 1983.
Michael Smithson, formerly at Cambridge and now director of Oxford's central fund-raising office, said that Mr Keevil's complaint was not unusual and that he received calls from donors hoping for special treatment every year.
Mr Keevil's case was one of two he had dealt with this week, he added. In the other case, a senior figure from one of the university's largest corporate sponsors e-mailed him on Monday to ask if anything could be done for the child of a colleague who had also just received a rejection letter.
Mr Smithson said: "Every year messages come through from people asking whether their philanthropic relationship with the university would be helpful in terms of admissions. I always tell them that admissions are completely in the hands of the colleges and that there is absolutely nothing we can do. It is completely understandable that people get very upset. Their children's education means a lot to them, particularly if they went to Oxford themselves and it is their old college. But all our students are selected on merit alone. We would lose all credibility if it was done any other way."
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said that parents, pupils and schools would be relieved at the decision.
"It is reassuring to know that you cannot buy your way into Oxford. Every person who gets in by such a route would prevent a more deserving candidate from gaining a place."Reuse content