Give university callers the cold-shoulder

21st May 2004 at 01:00
I used to be very polite to cold callers on the grounds that we journalists cold call people the whole time in search of information. If others' jobs involved cold calling in search of custom, I reasoned, I should treat them with the courtesy that I would hope for. Alas, cold calls are now so frequent and so annoying that I snarl "No!" and slam the phone down as soon as I hear "Is that Mr Peter Wilby?" in those unmistakable, strangely robotic call-centre tones.

One victim of my ill temper was my alma mater, the University of Sussex. I suppose Sussex has become what a report from a government task force, published last week, calls "an asking institution". The task force, under Eric Thomas, vice-chancellor of Bristol university, wants British universities to follow their US counterparts and raise more money from private, particularly alumni, donations. It wants the Government to "incentivise voluntary giving" (give more tax breaks to rich donors and match from public funds what is raised privately) and universities to "celebrate" such generosity (the report is unclear on this, but I'd guess it means engraving names on plaques and dishing out honorary degrees).

I am not against charitable giving as such. I support a robust "third sector" because, by choosing where to give money, the public will express a different set of priorities from those of the state or private sector and thus protect us against the dictatorship of either.

But I am suspicious of the growing role of sponsorship and private donation in education. Why, for example, should the development of specialist schools be dependent on a school's capacity to raise private money before it gets public funding? First, private donation tends to favour the already advantaged. A school in an affluent area with well-connected parents finds it easier to raise money than one in a poor area. And a long-established university, with many rich graduates, will get more and bigger donations than a university that was just a technical college 50 years ago.

Second, fund-raising campaigns tend to tap the relatively poor for the money that ought, through taxation or means-tested fees, to come from the rich. In Britain, those on below-average incomes contribute a higher proportion of their money to charity than those on above-average incomes.

As Thomas found, graduates earning more than pound;100,000 a year are less likely to say they will donate to their old universities than those on lower pay.

Third, I do not see why teachers and academics should have to divert their energies into fund-raising. Institutions that spread their efforts too thinly, and lose sight of their core purposes, often run into trouble.

Fourth, I think the present British attitude to charitable giving - that it should benefit the genuinely needy and be done in a spirit of quiet altruism - is a sound one. I do not wish to import the American culture where, as Thomas puts it, "conspicuous giving" is "a badge of social standing and evidence of professional success". Figures showing that Americans on average donate far more of their incomes to charitable purposes than the British are misleading. Nearly half of all American donations go to churches. Some of the money may eventually go to good causes, but much goes to expensively-appointed centres of worship or to corpulent preachers. Very little goes to, say, the alleviation of hunger, poverty and disease in Africa. It is hardly what I would call charity at all, as opposed to, say, medical research which is the biggest single beneficiary from British donations.

People's charitable impulses, and often their means, are limited. More donations to education will mean fewer to more desperate causes. So if an "asking university" rings to solicit money, I advise you to slam the phone down and send a cheque to Oxfam instead.

Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman

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