Crisis and Opportunity: Philanthropy and Australian Higher Education

Even before the global financial crisis, there was a growing awareness in Australian universities of the need to look past existing sources of funding. Given the impact of the crisis on the government’s capacity to carry out its desired funding ‘revolution’, educational leaders know that private money will become crucial to the ability of a university to do much more than eke out an existence. It may become necessary even for that.

With the demise (for the present) of domestic full-fee places and the pall cast over on-the-side revenue ventures like Melbourne University Private, philanthropy is attracting more and more attention. The growing number of senior appointments in the higher education sector intended largely or wholly to oversee fundraising is eloquent testimony to this trend.

There is some vestigial scepticism in Australia about massive fundraising campaigns like those familiar for colleges in the USA, but the evidence from Canada, the UK and now here too suggests that individuals, as well as trusts and foundations, will support higher education when a case can be made. This is the resumption of an Australian tradition rather than something entirely new. Despite the dominance of the public purse since the mid-twentieth century, universities like RMIT, Sydney and UWA owe a great deal to early benefactors like Francis Ormond, John Henry Challis and John Winthrop Hackett.

The real difficulties are subtler and more deep-seated than a mere unwillingness on the part of Australians to give. During the last half-century Australian universities have tended to portray themselves as schools for skills, driven and funded by taxpayers as essential services, like roads or pipes. Students participate not so much to change their own or others’ lives, but to take their place in an economy needing high levels of expertise and knowledge. This understanding is reflected in the bland economistic language of government policy, where no higher vision for universities is presumed than that of equipping graduates – if now a larger and more diverse set of graduates – to participate in the production of wealth.

This is not quite the stuff of dreaming spires, or even of the wider social good, and presents a difficulty for those who have to commend universities to philanthropy. Prospective donors might expect benefactions not merely to support a system under strain, but to make important differences for students and society itself.

This lack of vision also affects the unspectacular but important process of gaining support from a mass base of alumni. While in recent decades many graduates have left Australian universities with well-honed skills and critical abilities, fewer have left feeling debts of gratitude for inspiring or transformative experiences. Such a functional or transactional understanding has been exacerbated by the introduction of the HECS scheme; students who have or will make a fairly significant contribution to the cost of their education are even less likely to conceive of a moral debt to the institution, regarding the transaction as complete when the ATO has signed off.

The universities have often seemed content with this. The fact that many have recently had to start alumni programs from scratch illustrates how ephemeral the experience of study and of connection to a university was assumed to be. With its eye on the recurrent public funding that would accompany the hopes of students of the future, higher education has paid scant attention to beneficence from those of the past.

The existing pressure on resources in the sector is a Catch-22 for alumni programs and the sense of relationship with the institution that they require. With larger numbers of students, living and working under greater economic pressure, studying in less adequate facilities, and with poorer services, there has often been less and less about the university for which the graduate might be grateful. This is why the need is great, but a former student of recent decades may wonder about the newly-discovered causes for nostalgia that their alma mater suddenly wants to recall.

This problem arguably cuts deeper than the mere funding challenges of recent years. The former government’s VSU agenda, a contributing factor to the lack of student services, was viable precisely because the level of commitment or understanding in the university sector to student experiences beyond the classroom was at best uneven.

Without signs of a serious dialogue about what a university is for, the efforts of the new fundraisers will often be greeted with understandable scepticism by their targets. Yet this is an opportunity for universities to strengthen more than their balance-sheets. They will have to think more deeply about why higher education really ought to be supported beyond the reasons with which the public purse concerns itself. Perhaps they may still exist to change, and not merely supply, graduates. Perhaps they may exist to generate visions, and not only skills. Perhaps they can foster independent thought, and not merely competence. Fresh (yet very traditional) answers to these questions might be an even more important result than raising money, as well as a necessary condition of raising it.

1 comment:

Asia-Pacific Advancement said...

Andrew - thank you for the thoughtful and inspired posting, reminding us all that philanthropy in the higher education sphere is not completely "new" to Australia. Just today there's news that the Gates Foundation is stumping up $18 million to UNSW in support of their HIV/AIDS research. Now we just need to find the modern day Australian Gates/Ormond/Hacketts!
I read a presentation the other day from Tom Ahern, who often speaks at CASE conferences. He reminds us that donors do not give TO institutions but rather THROUGH them. That might be a helpful context as we position ourselves for support - the impact of what can be achieved via supporting students, research and innovation at worthy Australian universities.