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Archive for June, 2013
In a recent Times Higher article, Chris Higgins makes the point that “the British are generous, yet rarely see universities as a natural home for charitable giving”. His main explanation for this is that they are seen as “state-funded, public-sector bodies”.
I think there is lots of depth to this statement, but the explanation is a bit thin. I don’t think that it is necessarily the source of funding that is the issue, but that universities are often seen as wealthy institutions. A couple of anecdotes will illustrate this.
Years ago, I was on the streets of Edinburgh, helping with a fundraising attempt for the Edinburgh Students’ Charities Appeal (I think I was playing music as part of a band). A member of the public engaged us in conversation about what we were raising money for, and we said that it was for the Edinburgh University charities appeal. The person got the wrong end of the stick, and assumed that we were trying to raise money to support the University, not that this was a student organisation that raised money for charitable activities in the city. Their response was, consequently, one of ludicrous disbelief—how could we, representing such a wealthy organisation, possibly be asking the general public for money? Eventually, the confusion was cleared up, but it raised an interesting set of thoughts about why asking for money for a university was seen as so offensive.
Interestingly, had we be asking for money for a local primary school, I’m sure that we wouldn’t have gotten a negative response. I think one aspect is the general air of wealth that surrounds even the most poor university. A further issue is that not everyone goes to university—giving money to a primary school seems to be supporting a public good in a way that giving money to a university wouldn’t be. Yet, we don’t have this problem in other areas of life—I can imagine that if I was collecting money for a sports or music activity, “to support the best of our local youth”, I would still get the donations readily, despite this being a vastly more selective activity than going to a university. Nor is this to do with future income—a successful top-flight footballer will probably make a vastly greater financial benefit from the sports activity than a financially-successful graduate.
A second example comes from interaction with the local business community. I use to attend activities that were designed to pair local businesses with academics for mutual benefit, which is potentially a good idea. But, a lot of these relations were stymied by the perception from both “sides” that the other was a one with all the money. We saw the businesses as a source of income—whilst, we hoped that it would be a richer relationship than just a simple business transaction, we clearly saw the businesses as the people who were representing the money side of the equation and that any activity would draw its funding from their side. The problem was, that they had a similar perception, i.e. that the University was the rich, well-funded public organisation that would put resources into the project.
So far, these anecdotes align somewhat with Higgins’s analysis of the university as presenting itself to the public as a rich, publicly funded organisation. But, there are issues with presenting itself as a private organisation, too. I can imagine that one reason why graduates might not donate to their almae matres is that they see themselves too much as customers to make this a meaningful proposition. People might like certain commercial organisations, and, indeed, see shopping there as part of their identity. But, I cannot imagine that M&S would have any success with a phone campaign asking customers for donations.
I wonder if a key issue here is that in the UK we don’t have a large number of not-for-profit private organisations other than donation-driven charities. By this, I mean organisations that don’t make a profit for shareholders or owners, but which subsist mostly on charging for their activities. The Guardian newspaper is one example, but this sector seems fairly under-the-radar compared with the for-profit private sector and the tax-funded public sector.