Universities rethink the celebrity factor

Famous figureheads may be ditched in favour of fundraisers
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The Independent Online

Cherie Booth and Jon Snow have done it for years. Melvyn Bragg, Anna Ford and Dame Diana Rigg are well-established, too. Greg Dyke starts in August.

Cherie Booth and Jon Snow have done it for years. Melvyn Bragg, Anna Ford and Dame Diana Rigg are well-established, too. Greg Dyke starts in August.

No British university is complete without a celebrity chancellor to hand out certificates and pose for photographs in antique robes.

But their days of sherry-fuelled chatter in the senior common room could soon be over. This week ministers will be urged to sweep away the amateurs and replace them with a new generation of hard-nosed fundraisers.

The Government is desperate for British colleges to emulate their wealthy American counterparts, which have turned raising money into an art form.

In the US, the task is given to senior university figures, and the results are impressive. Around 50 per cent of students at Ivy League universities such as Yale and Harvard make endowments - compared with around 2 per cent at British universities.

The new recommendation comes from a government task force on endowments, whose members include the vice-chancellor of Bristol University, the chief executive of Marie Curie Cancer Care and the millionaire philanthropist Sir Peter Lampl.

They believe chancellors should be paid, providing they spend several days a week pulling in cash.

According to research carried out by the Sutton Trust, even Oxford and Cambridge receive endowments of only £120,000 per student, sums that are dwarfed by contributions of £812,500 a year to Princeton or £550,300 to Harvard.

But the proposals are viewed with scepticism by some. Jon Snow, the Channel 4 newscaster and chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, said that potential donors are more likely to warm to figures with a personal commitment than to the blandishments of professional fundraisers.

Mr Snow was appointed chancellor despite his student history of fighting the authorities at Liverpool University. In fact he was sent down without a degree after helping to lead a sit-in at the Senate House. But this has been no problem when it comes to representing Oxford Brookes.

The duties vary, with some chancellors expected to chair the senior council of academics, for example. But fancy dress is a common feature. Cherie Booth puts on an outsized blue velvet hat at Liverpool John Moores University. At Cambridge, the Duke of Edinburgh turns up wearing black with gold lace. Perhaps the most prominent university figurehead is the EU commissioner Chris Patten, who is chancellor of Oxford University. Sir Peter Hall, the former director of the National Theatre, is at Kingston; Lord Bragg, the TV presenter and author presides at Durham; Sir Trevor McDonald is at London's South Bank University, and Greg Dyke is soon to take over at York.

Many are quite active, despite doing the job for free. Baroness (Betty) Boothroyd puts in 15 days a year at the Open University. Dame Diana Rigg does 10 days of visits and glad-handing at Stirling.

The Government's task force is also expected to urge ministers to provide matched funding for money raised through endowments from former alumni to help initiate a change of culture in universities - and to get endowment schemes off the ground.

Ministers set up the advisory group to see whether this untapped area of funding could provide enough extra revenue to pay for bursaries for less well-off students once their controversial top-up fees legislation comes into effect. Under the legislation, universities will be able to charge up to £3,000 a year from 2006 - provided they make efforts to attract students from lower income groups.

Some universities argue that the choice of chancellor sends out a statement about the kind of person they want to attract to the university.

A source close to the task force said thatchancellors could take the job on a more professional footing. "Somebody like Chris Patten might like to do two or three days a week raising money for a good cause - and get paid."

However, senior academics argue that they may have to go for less high-profile figures if they are to get someone who is prepared to devote a vast amount of time to raising funds for the institution. Alternatively, they argue, the "names" they currently appoint could be used as figureheads for any funding drive.