C Duncan Rice: Universities should look at private fundraising

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The Independent Online

These are turbulent times for higher education, with uncertainty and speculation about whether the forthcoming twice-delayed government White Paper will endorse top-up fees. At the heart of the debate is the realisation that the status quo is not an option if we want to be among the best in the world – and more often than not the best are to be found in the United States.

These are turbulent times for higher education, with uncertainty and speculation about whether the forthcoming twice-delayed government White Paper will endorse top-up fees. At the heart of the debate is the realisation that the status quo is not an option if we want to be among the best in the world – and more often than not the best are to be found in the United States.

From my experience of US universities, the reasons they have done so well are scale and wealth. Essentially you can get intellectual scale through having large student numbers, or from independent wealth. Either of these make it possible to pay large numbers of academics to improve the range of teaching and increase the size of research units so that they can be internationally competitive. Scale is the reason why several British institutions – including my own, the University of Aberdeen, and our colleagues at the Robert Gordon University – are exploring the option of merger.

As for wealth, it is becoming more accepted than ever that it is no longer realistic to look to government to provide it. Even if there were the political will, the higher education sector has expanded so much that the required expenditure simply can't be afforded by government.

Public debate has, therefore, turned to tuition fees. Some point to the wealth of US universities as justification. Many argue, conversely, that fees will reverse the progress that has been made in widening access in recent years.

My experience in the US suggests that the issues are more complex, both there and here. First, fees operate in many US institutions in a way that has been quite effective at widening access, through redistributing fee income into bursary schemes for poorer students. Probably none of us yet knows enough to take a fixed position on fees, and indeed my own university has deferred judgement. But the American example doesn't mean in itself that fees would work here. And, paradoxically, the effect might be not to limit the numbers of students in higher education from the socially excluded – whom our universities, as in America, would protect – but to make education unreachable for the middle classes who would have to pay fees.

Second, while our US counterparts are generally richer, that is because they are extremely adept at private fundraising. The debate on funding has so far ignored that philanthropy can help us to start doing what government can't. This week, at Aberdeen, we completed the first phase of the biggest fundraising campaign in any UK university outside Oxbridge, raising £47m in just over two years towards a target of £150m by the end of the decade. Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, has hinted that universities could do more to embrace private finance, and gave the US as an example. The recent tax changes in the Chancellor's "Get Britain Giving" campaign make this more plausible.

It's not just that private contributions can give us some of the funding we need to be internationally competitive. In an era where government is politically compelled to define the worth of higher education in terms of our contribution to the economy, philanthropy can also help protect the place of the valuable – as opposed to the utilitarian – in our universities. Maintaining a powerful presence for the humanities, or for non-applied research, is essential if we want to compete with the world's best institutions, regardless of the fact that they are intrinsic to any civilised society.

After all, while we may not have the charity of the US – which gives an astonishing 2 per cent of its gross domestic product to charity each year – it is only since 1945 that we have been able to rely on government and ignore philanthropy. My own university was established in 1495 on charitable donations. So were many others, long before our US competitors or the welfare state were established. Philanthropy is not the sole solution to the funding question. But rather than our relying on government, we must accept that philanthropy has become an option we cannot afford to ignore.

Professor C Duncan Rice is principal of the University of Aberdeen and was previously vice-chancellor of New York University

education@independent.co.uk

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