Leading article: Alumni must learn to give

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The Independent Online

Today, Tony Blair announces a government funding scheme to help universities to build up endowments on the American model. This is good news for British higher education, which has been slow to get going with developing good alumni databases and donation programmes. Apart from Oxford and Cambridge, which raise about £100m a year each, few universities in the UK have been able to do any meaningful fundraising. The annual giving rate of such universities is a little less than 1 per cent, which means that only one in 100 graduates is giving to his or her Alma Mater. That is pathetic. But, with the help of the Prime Minister's matching scheme, it should improve. The hope must be that the UK can begin to embed charitable giving into its culture in the same way that the US has.

If, as the leaked reports suggest, every £2 given to a university will be matched with £1 from public funds, up to a maximum of £2m of public money for each university, that should provide an incentive for higher education to get serious about fundraising. Vice-chancellors may complain that British attitudes differ fundamentally from American ones, and that nothing can be done to change them, but that is probably overly pessimistic, particularly in an age when students have to think of their degrees as an investment. It may be that urban universities will be unable to instil the same level of loyalty as campus universities, but the lesson of America is instructive here.

Twenty-five years ago, state universities in the US such as Oklahoma and Maryland were almost entirely dependent on their state governments for funding. But the states decided to pull the plug and these universities were forced to start the long slog of tapping alumni and other donors. In that time they have built up sizeable endowments - some have accumulated funds of $200m a year. British universities may not be able to do as well, but now they have little excuse to do nothing.

Those who are serious should think about splitting the role of vice-chancellor, which at present includes both fundraising and running the institution, just as they do in the States. The fundraising job is virtually full-time, a dizzy round of meetings, dinners, speeches and encouraging donors - and vitally important. Why doesn't Oxford University lead the way by making Lord Patten its chief fundraiser?

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