Azara Blog: Cambridge University writes to its alumni and alumnae

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Date published: 2005/06/27

The staff and students of Cambridge University generally feel more attached to their college and/or their department than they do to the university as a whole. The main purpose of the university itself seems to be administrative and financial, yet most fund-raising happens via the colleges or departments (the latter often with some kind of assistance from the university).

Alison Richard is the vice-chancellor of the university. (The prefix "vice" is misleading because she is actually the real head. The chancellor is Prince Philip, but that is only a titular post.) She has just sent out a (snail mail) letter to "all alumni" (the letter itself is addressed to "alumni and alumnae"). It's a two-page letter and it's hard to believe many people will actually read the whole thing, especially since there seems to be little stated purpose to it except to remind alumni that they are alumni. (Apparently it is the first time a vice-chancellor has sent out a letter to all alumni.)

Well of course the whole point of the letter is financial, and not just directly via fund-raising but also indirectly by promoting the university both upwards (to the government) and downwards (to prospective students). There is a bit of a contradiction here. The government is insisting (for social engineering reasons) that more and more people go to university. But of course government does not want to throw that much more money at universities. So the Cambridge administrators want government to allow it (and the other universities) to charge a whacking great amount to let it make up the difference, and hopefully to compete with American universities on the world academic stage. (The government will let universities charge up to 3000 pounds per student per year from next year.) Needless to say this is not going to encourage prospective students to come to Cambridge. "Poor" students (by some politically correct definition) will be subsidised which means "non-poor" students will get hammered even more. Foreign students will certainly be less inclined to come, and that will eventually hurt UK Plc because of diminishing influence in the world.

The best way for Cambridge to square this circle in the short term is to try and get its alumni to donate large sums of money. In the long term the best option is probably going to be to go completely private, which of course also relies on alumni donations. Going private will be the only way to get rid of the pathetic interference from central government. (It has been bad enough with Thatcher and Blair, if Brown takes over it will be ten times worse since, being part of the Scottish elite, he does not like Oxbridge.)

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