Oxford gets the money it needs

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When Oxford Thinking, the University’s much-trumpeted campaign to raise £1.25 billion, launched two years ago, one woman was at the centre of it all, using her connections to try to balance Oxford’s books.

Following Dame Vivien Duffield’s resignation as chairman of the Campaign this week, Oxford is under more pressure than ever to prove it can afford to keep its seat at the top table in higher education.

The University appears to be looking across the Atlantic for the answer to this particular problem. Vice-Chancellor Andrew Hamilton, whose experience in the US higher-education system was much discussed when he took up the post last year, has repeatedly praised the tradition in America of alumni giving back to their alma-mater. He recently indicated that he imagined donors would be playing an increasing role in funding the University.

“In future it seems to me that we are going to have to ensure that support for student bursaries and scholarships – at both undergraduate and graduate level – and for teaching plays a much bigger role in our fund-raising activity. I have seen this at close quarters in the US and my strong sense is that our well-wishers and benefactors—large and small –will be prepared to identify with and respond to such a priority here at Oxford,” he said.

Acknowledging that currently US Universities are much more successful at drawing in donations than British universities, Oxford is optimistic about the future of alumni donations.

A University spokesperson said: “Ivy League universities are certainly getting significantly higher rates of alumni giving at the moment, we hope that students will get behind the Oxford Thinking Campaign, which gives opportunities for all who care about the future of education, discovery and knowledge, and their importance in our changing world. Every gift, no matter what is size, is important to the collegiate University.”

Established in 2008, Oxford Thinking has focused on drawing in donations from a range of sources, appealing beyond alumni circles. With a minimum target of £1.25bn, the Campaign announced this September that it had raised £961m.

Dame Vivien Duffield has been integral to this process and although she has now stood down as Chairman of the Campaign many of the innovations she was involved with remain.

One such innovation was a set of ‘donor recognition’ societies, including the ‘Vice-Chancellor’s Circle’. The circle, launched by John Hood, Hamilton’s predecessor, in 2009, is open to benefactors who have donated above £250,000 to the University.

According to the University’s Campaign brochure, they receive regular communications from the Vice-Chancellor and invitations to exclusive Circle events.

Among the circle are Sheikh Mohamad Bin Issa Al-Jaber, a self-styled philanthropist and UNESCO Special Envoy for Education, Tolerance, and Cultures in the Middle East who aims to “[build] bridges between the Middle East and the West, primarily through education, but also through the promotion of peace, tolerance and conflict resolution”. He paid for the new £1 million auditorium at Corpus Christi last year, which is named after him. The college made up a Latin ceremony to mark his donation.

One step up from the Circle is The Chancellor’s Court of Benefactors. The individuals who make up this group have given £1.5 million or more to the University. Older than the Vice-Chancellor’s circle, the Court is a prestigious group to which members have to be formally admitted. The Court meets every autumn in Oxford, and allows its members access to the Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, Heads of Colleges and senior academics with the intention of enabling them to become more involved in the running of the University.

Among the members of this exclusive group is Professor Louis Cha, better known by his pen name of Jin Yong. Despite never formally attending the University, the Chinese-language writer is an honorary fellow of St Anthony’s College and a Waynflete fellow at Magdalen.

The Court also includes many Oxford graduates. Professor Brian Bellhouse, who read Maths at Magdalen College from 1957, was admitted to the Court in 2008. The Bellhouse Foundation gave many donations to the Department of Engineering Science, allowing them to set up the Institute of Biomedical Engineering.

Professor Darton commented at the time that: “Brian’s great generosity to the Department at an early stage when we were establishing our Institute of Biomedical Engineering has been vital to the success of that venture. We are immensely grateful to Brian, and other benefactors who came after him.”

The pressure is now on for the University to find more donors like Bellhouse to fill the funding gap left by the government’s cuts.

Oxford is already redoubling its efforts, but, with no culture of higher education giving in the UK, they may well prove too little, too late.

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