BY JAMIE FOSTER
A Daily Mail investigation has revealed that top universities are using wealth screening organisations to spy on their alumni to discover if they are likely to make donations. Millions of graduates have had their details passed to such organisations. If their consent wasn’t obtained to do this, then the universities may have broken the law. A number of charities were fined last year for undertaking a similar process. The Information Commissioner is now looking at whether the universities should also be fined.
Last year the top Russell Group Universities received 80% of the £1 Billion raised by universities in donations. This is a staggering figure. Universities are raising as much in a year as they used to in five years. Maintaining this is huge business for universities, whose heads last year took home an average pay packet with benefits of just under £280K. In the rush to find donors it appears that universities may be bending the rules if not openly breaking the law. It is an open question as to how universities can square such huge salaries and donations with undergraduates taking on debt to pay their student fees.
Wealth screening organisations with names like ‘Prospecting for Gold’ are used to determine just how much alumni are worth and how likely they are to make big donations. There is something very sinister about universities behaving in this way. Universities are already part funded by the taxpayer but are turning to US style fundraising tactics to top up their incomes. Alumni are also screened according to their interests to see if they are likely to donate to particular causes. Their donations to other causes are considered.
Our universities are a source of great pride to this country. They are among the best in the world and it is very important that we don’t knock them for the sake of having something to complain about. It is not surprising that they are keen to ensure their own funding going into the future. Nonetheless it is wrong that they should break the law if that is what it turns out has happened. It is also not surprising that alumni should feel a sense of pride about the university that they attended and wish to donate to ensure that others receive the opportunities they enjoyed. The relationship between alumni and universities is a precious one which makes it more serious if universities are risking that relationship in this way. Trust is an essential element in any relationship that involves giving. Our major charities have already abused this trust in the way that they have sought donations. It is a terrible thing to imagine that universities are also willing to abuse the trust of their alumni.
Current undergraduates will leave university with an average debt of around £46,000 and eight out of ten will never fully repay their loans. It may be time to consider how universities can justify such huge pay packets to their heads while this remains the case. It seems that the system is set up to benefit the institutions and those few who leave university and go on to make large amounts of money. Those successful students are being targeted by universities as potential donors while the rest are left to get on with it. Student fees exist to deal with the inequity of the taxpayer being solely responsible for funding students who personally benefit from their time at university. Allowing universities to raise huge sums while requiring both students and the taxpayer to contribute may also be an inequity.
It is easy to attack institutions for acquiring great wealth and that is not the purpose of this article. Given the huge number of alumni affected, however, this is a subject that requires serious consideration. Our universities need to retain the trust of their alumni and the public and can’t be seen to be acting in a manner that is underhand or lacking in integrity. When those of us who donate to universities do so we must be sure that we are being treated fairly. It is time the Information Commissioner looked closely at ensuring that this is the case.
Jamie Foster is Country Squire Magazine’s Chief Writer and works as a country solicitor.