Commentary: Should universities even accept donations from hopeful parents?

Commentary: Should universities even accept donations from hopeful parents?

The US admissions scandal has shone a light on a broader ethical question around university funding, says the Financial Times Gillian Tett

FILE PHOTO: Graduates gather outside Senate House after their graduation ceremony at Cambridge Univ
Graduates gather outside Senate House after their graduation ceremony at Cambridge University in eastern England October 23, 2010. (Photo: REUTERS/Paul Hackett)

LONDON: Earlier this week, the leaders of Cambridge university held a dinner in New York’s Public Library to “connect” with local alumni – a polite euphemism for the process of tapping those alums for cash, as part of an ongoing £2 billion (US$2.6 billion) fundraising campaign.

The Cambridge academics showcased the university’s intellectual prowess, as did the students who were also present.

But one significant category of people was not invited: Parents of students or of prospective students. “We decided against it,” an organiser explained, with an embarrassed laugh.

Why? A New Yorker might guess this was a recent decision, driven by the “optics”. Earlier in the year, the US was rocked by a college admissions scandal, when it emerged that wealthy parents had been buying places for their kids at places such as the University of Southern California, by paying for favourable treatment in admissions exams or by bribing coaches to testify to their children’s sporting prowess.

University of Southern California
Students walk near the entrance to the Engemann Student Health Center on the campus of the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, California on May 17, 2018. (Photo: AFP/Robyn Beck)

In fact, Cambridge university has long been vehemently opposed to anything that smacks of parents “buying” places for their kids, whether through connections or money.

This aversion to unfair influence is so deeply ingrained at some colleges that when I applied to Cambridge, three decades ago, my school teachers sternly warned me to avoid mentioning that my father had attended the same institution. Having a parental link was seen as a potential black mark, not a help.

To US ears this may seem bizarre. For while most of the country’s elites may recoil from the idea of outright fraud, the notion of using “legacy” connections is regarded as par for the course.

In the UK, however, Cambridge’s stance is unremarkable. If anything, British universities have become more outspoken against parental pressure in recent years, while such influence-peddling has quietly proliferated in the US.

“Family connections or donations do not, and will not, play a role in that assessment process,” insists a Cambridge spokesperson. There is, in other words, a cultural gulf.

Does this mean that the British system is more “fair”? Not necessarily. 


Money and class still buy privilege aplenty in the UK, albeit in a more subtle way, via access to select schools: A report from the Sutton Trust last year showed that almost half of all Oxbridge places go to children at private schools, although only 7 per cent of kids in the UK attend these.

If you look at the issue from a wider social perspective, the issue of “fairness” becomes more nuanced. The perception that American parents can use legacy links and donations to boost their children’s chances of following in their footsteps pushes many of them to try to do precisely that, which helps to explain why many of them stay closely in touch with – and give generously to – their alma mater. 

(Of course, many also give in the spirit of disinterested philanthropy; but self-interest cannot be ignored.)

FILE PHOTO: Graduating students arrive for Commencement Exercises at Boston College in Boston
FILE PHOTO: Graduating students arrive for Commencement Exercises at Boston College in Boston, Massachusetts, US on May 20, 2013. (Photo: REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo)

Those donations are then recycled through the colleges, and a big chunk is used to offer scholarships to poor students. This process creates inequities of its own, since big-name colleges garner vastly more donations than community colleges. And the system penalises middle-class kids who lack the connections and wealth of the elite but are not poor or “diverse” enough to qualify for aid.

But when it comes to issues of social mobility and university, the UK and US are not so far apart: The OECD calculates that while Americans from families with university degrees are 6.8 times more likely to attend college than people from families without a degree, this ratio is only slightly better, at 6.3, in England.

In Finland and South Korea, by contrast, it is just over one.


This raises a philosophical question: Is it better to shun any parental donations on moral grounds, if these seem intended to buy influence? 

Or is it better to create a wealthier university by any means, and give out more scholarships? 

To put it more crudely: Is it right for US universities to accept some rich-but-dim kids as just the “price” for subsidising more poor-but-bright ones?

When I put this question to senior figures at Cambridge, their answer – with a wince – was “no”. But their principled position comes at a cost: Today, Cambridge’s endowment (including university and colleges) is “only” £12 billion – bigger than most European universities but far smaller than Princeton or Stanford (both about US$26 billion), Yale (US$29 billion) or Harvard (US$38 billion).

READ: Donations from the rich distract us from what is really needed to tackle inequality, a commentary

That has not dented the ranking of Oxford and Cambridge so far: They still often top global leagues. 

FILE PHOTO: People walk into the quadrant of Clare College at Cambridge University in eastern Engla
People walk into the quadrant of Clare College at Cambridge University in eastern England Oct 23, 2010. (Photo: REUTERS/Paul Hackett)

Although Cambridge is scrambling to catch up – and recently received a record £100 million donation – university officials reckon its current fundraising intake is only a third of Stanford’s.

So the next time you get a letter from your old college begging for a donation – or are fretting about your kids’ prospects – ponder these moral quandaries. 

There are no easy answers here. But dealing with difficult philosophical questions is, of course, one thing that university is supposed to teach in the first place.

Source: CNA/nr(sl)