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12 April 2013updated 22 Oct 2020 3:55pm

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

Probably because they spend more.

By Mark Nayler

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.

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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.