Oxford shakes up British higher education with fundraising drive

It launched the $2.5 billion billion campaign Wednesday to help the school better compete with Ivy Leagues and other world-class institutions.

Different League: The combined endowment of all UK universities, such as Oxford, shown here, is less than half of Harvard's.

The University of Oxford launched on Wednesday the biggest fundraising campaign in European academic history to help the august institution keep pace with better-funded US rivals.

The university aims to drum up £1.25 billion ($2.5 billion) to aggressively recruit top academics from around the world and support its unique 1-on-1 tutorial system. It said more than 20,000 donors had pledged £575 million during the campaign's "pre-launch phase."

"We want to stay world class; we want to be the best in the world," said university chancellor Chris Patten. He added that Oxford lagged well behind at least three Ivy League universities – Harvard, Yale, and Princeton – in terms of funding, "and we want to compete in the world economy for the best academics."

The move sends two clear messages: First, Britain's 100-plus universities will increasingly have to rely on their own fundraising efforts. Second, those that are less successful or resourceful will quickly lose status.

"It's a very sensible aim by Oxford, but it is in a much better position than most universities to do this," says Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education at Buckingham University. "It will bring all sorts of benefits in terms of world standing and freedom of action ... but it's going to be a hard row to hoe because there isn't that culture of giving in Britain. Also it will lead to a more differentiated system."

Instead of again raising the per-student tuition cap, set at £3,000 two years ago, the government is encouraging British universities to become as resourceful as their US counterparts. Britain has a thin tradition of endowments and alumni support for universities. Just 100,000 Britons gave to their alma maters last year, a tiny fraction of total graduates.

Research by the Sutton Trust educational charity found that the combined endowments of all British universities total less than half of Harvard's $34 billion endowment. Oxford and Cambridge are responsible for 80 percent of the British endowment figure, with only £1.9 billion between the other 100-plus universities.

"The extent of endowments in the UK is minuscule in terms of what US universities are receiving," says Professor Smithers. "If you look at the extent of the endowment which universities [around the world] have ... Oxford and Cambridge are well down the list."

Cambridge launched its own fundraising appeal three years ago, drumming up £663 million. "The US is a long way ahead," says university spokesman Gregory Hayman, "but our view is that the reason there hasn't been a culture of giving in the UK is that there hasn't been a culture of asking." The government hopes to stimulate a proactive approach with "matched funding" of £200 million that will be doled out to universities in proportion as they secure donations.

Joanna Motion, vice president of the Washington-based Council for Advancement and Support of Education, an international grouping of more than 3,000 institutions, says universities need to play to their strengths. "Every university has particular strengths, whether in student experience, whether in academic or practical activity that they specialize in," she says. "They need to know who their potential supporters are."

Philip Walker of the Higher Education Funding Council for England echoes that. "We would encourage universities to seek funding from a wide range of sources, but they are all different and all have different histories, and so there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach," he says. "What works for Oxford doesn't necessarily work for others."

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