Donations to universities are at a record high. Why does half go to Oxbridge?

Probably because they spend more.

A report released yesterday by the National Centre for Social Research shows that during 2011-2012 the UK’s universities received more money from philanthropists than ever before. A total of £774m was given, up from £676m in 2010-2011.

The UK’s top universities are receiving the majority of these gifts, with Oxford and Cambridge alone receiving half of the total amount given last year. It can be no coincidence, however, that the universities that receive the most are also spending the most on fundraising.

Out of the 143 institutions that took part in the survey, which was carried out for The Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and the Ross Group, Oxbridge and Russell Group universities received an enormous £644 million of the total given, with the remaining 119 universities receiving just £130 million between them. Twenty nine universities received donations of less than £100,000.

While many will attribute this imbalance to the fame and prestige of Oxbridge and Russell group universities — Michael Moritz’s gift of £75 million to Oxford last July makes up a substantial portion of the total given during 2011-2012 — the report suggests that, far from resting on their laurels, the top institutions are working hard to attract funding.

Anyone familiar with the challenges of fundraising knows that you have to spend money to make it. This is borne out by the fact that the universities that are receiving the largest donations are spending the most on attracting philanthropists: out of a total of £79 million spent on fundraising initiatives by the 143 participating institutions, £50 million was spent by Oxbridge and the Russell group universities — just 24 institutions in total.

The remaining 119 institutions spent just £29 million between them on fundraising, which averages out at £244,000 per institution as opposed to just over £2 million for the Russell group universities (including Oxbridge).

Interestingly, the figures also illustrate that while together the Oxbridge and Russell Group Universities made about £12.88 for every £1 spent on fundraising, other universities only made about £4.48 for every £1 spent.

This could be due to scalability, as Oxbridge and Russell Group institutions depend on large fundraising and development offices. Oxford and Cambridge alone employed 310 fundraising staff between them last year, and the Russell group employed 422. The other 119 institutions had only 429 fundraising staff between them – equivalent to 3 per university.

It might seem unfair that a handful of leading universities are receiving the vast majority of philanthropic gifts made to the UK’s higher education sector. But the CASE report suggests that these institutions are not merely cashing in on their fame, but making a sustained effort to attract the attention of private donors; to the UK universities that received little last year, it should therefore serve as a reminder that spending money can make you money.

This article first appeared in Spear's magazine.

Utter punts. Photograph: Getty Images

Mark Nayler is a senior researcher at Spear's magazine.

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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.