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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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn turns "the nasty party" back on Theresa May

The Labour leader exploited Conservative splits over disability benefits.

It didn't take long for Theresa May to herald the Conservatives' Copeland by-election victory at PMQs (and one couldn't blame her). But Jeremy Corbyn swiftly brought her down to earth. The Labour leader denounced the government for "sneaking out" its decision to overrule a court judgement calling for Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) to be extended to those with severe mental health problems.

Rather than merely expressing his own outrage, Corbyn drew on that of others. He smartly quoted Tory backbencher Heidi Allen, one of the tax credit rebels, who has called on May to "think agan" and "honour" the court's rulings. The Prime Minister protested that the government was merely returning PIPs to their "original intention" and was already spending more than ever on those with mental health conditions. But Corbyn had more ammunition, denouncing Conservative policy chair George Freeman for his suggestion that those "taking pills" for anxiety aren't "really disabled". After May branded Labour "the nasty party" in her conference speech, Corbyn suggested that the Tories were once again worthy of her epithet.

May emphasised that Freeman had apologised and, as so often, warned that the "extra support" promised by Labour would be impossible without the "strong economy" guaranteed by the Conservatives. "The one thing we know about Labour is that they would bankrupt Britain," she declared. Unlike on previous occasions, Corbyn had a ready riposte, reminding the Tories that they had increased the national debt by more than every previous Labour government.

But May saved her jibe of choice for the end, recalling shadow cabinet minister Cat Smith's assertion that the Copeland result was an "incredible achivement" for her party. "I think that word actually sums up the Right Honourable Gentleman's leadership. In-cred-ible," May concluded, with a rather surreal Thatcher-esque flourish.

Yet many economists and EU experts say the same of her Brexit plan. Having repeatedly hailed the UK's "strong economy" (which has so far proved resilient), May had better hope that single market withdrawal does not wreck it. But on Brexit, as on disability benefits, it is Conservative rebels, not Corbyn, who will determine her fate.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.