Universities resort to cold calling ex-students

Nine million graduates asked for cash donations as institutions adopt aggressive US-style tactics

Paul Gallagher
Sunday 27 July 2014 23:15
Great Hall, Assembly Building, Campus of the University of Leeds
Great Hall, Assembly Building, Campus of the University of Leeds

Universities targeted more than nine million of their former students with cold calls and spam emails over the past year as they increasingly adopt US-style tactics to raise funds.

Philanthropic donations to institutions are at a record high but the growth in aggressive fundraising has angered graduates of wealthy universities who are still struggling to pay back huge levels of student debt.

The number of graduates asked to donate has nearly doubled in the past decade with almost 9.3 million approached last year and 174,000 (1.4 per cent) making a gift, according to the latest annual report from the Ross Group and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

Universities now spend £80m a year on fundraising – up from £34m in 2005 – and secured £660m in cash donations in 2012-13, with older graduates who received a free education much more likely to contribute.

Attempting to persuade graduates to hand over more money is likely to become harder from 2015 after the graduation of the first students who paid £9,000 a year tuition fees generation graduate.

Tamsin McSmith, 20, part of that intake and half way through her four-year course at Sheffield will leave with £36,000 in fees to repay and £12,000 in maintenance loans.

“The university has got enough money out of me and I imagine friends would feel the same,” she said.

A Nottingham Trent graduate told The Independent: “The times I have been called it was by pushy Americans. They seemed genuinely surprised I didn’t want to give anything back – there is a completely different culture to alumni donating to alma mater over there. I then started asking why I would donate when the vice chancellor enjoyed such a massive pay rise while trying to derecognise the trade union. They made their excuses and hung up.”

Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the University and College Union, agrees. “Pushy cold callers rarely enhance an organisation’s reputation and, while alumni donations are of course welcome, universities should not consider an income stream as variable as this as a central part of their financial planning,” she said.

“Recent and future graduates may be less inclined to donate as they have felt the sharp rise in fees and their graduate debt.”

The Higher Education Funding Council for England has said the 1,200 fundraising staff at universities will need to “double, if not triple” if they are to reach a goal set out two years ago of raising £2bn per year from 640,000 donors by 2022.

The largest individual cash gifts during the last academic year were made to the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, King’s College London, Nottingham Trent and London Business School.

The University of Sheffield reported a £14.8m operating surplus last year with its latest annual report describing “buoyant cash reserves” that allows it to deliver “an outstanding student experience and to invest in capital infrastructure”. In the past 10 years the university’s income has grown 69 per cent. It declined to comment.

Both Sheffield and Brighton are typical of most universities in having annual phone campaigns with the former securing £380,000 from 2,000 donors last year and the latter raising £45,000 after contacting the same number.

Brighton, whose surplus last year was almost £15m – a 33 per cent rise – and three times more than it budgeted for, said in its annual report said the aim of the phone campaigns is “to increase participation levels amongst alumni and the focus is less on how much alumni give and more on how many alumni give”.

While the increase in cold calls and junk mail asking for donations irks many graduates, those who have directly benefited from alumni funds testify to their importance.

Nicola Moors, 22, from Warrington, Cheshire, finished her journalism course at Sheffield last week. She maintains that without the £3,000 alumni fund scholarship received in her first year she would not be about to start her new job at a Birmingham press agency, having been able to spend time on the student newspaper instead of doing extra part-time work to help her finances.

“What many people don’t realise is that no matter what university you are at, there are people from all kinds of different backgrounds,” she said. “I’d definitely donate in the future as it’s so worthwhile. I’d never heard about the alumni scholarship until I arrived and it has made a huge difference to me.”

Amy Durrant worked for Sheffield’s alumni fund as a fundraising caller during her studies and said she has seen first-hand that alumni donations have funded facilities that ensure the university gives students the best support possible.

Guilt-edged spam for research funding

Spam emails are an increasingly frequent method to target graduates. Since May the University of Leeds has sent out thousands of emails headlined “Urgent funding deadline” and asking for a donation, correlating with the recipient’s year of graduation, towards a £159,000 fund for Professor Mark Kearney’s “life-saving research” into new treatments for diabetes-related heart disease. It states: “The University of Leeds will always be in our hearts. Now with your help, our university could be the difference between life and death for people with diabetes. Please give today.”

Some 30 graduates a day have been donating, according to the university, but others who have chosen not to give told The Independent that if the research was so important, Leeds should fund it from the £41m it transferred to its reserves last year.

Jayne Glennon, Head of Major Gifts at Leeds University, said: “It would be unsustainable to use the University’s financial surplus, which varies in size from year-to-year, to fund long-term research projects which need their own income streams. We heavily rely on University research being supported by funders such as charities or research councils, but our fundraising campaigns enable us to direct donations towards specific areas of research, such as Professor Kearney’s potentially life-saving work. As a charity, fundraising remains vitally important to all our activities, whether that’s supporting scholarships and bursaries to give people the chance to come to university or funding life-changing research which may lead to medical breakthroughs that benefit society as a whole.”

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