Putting your money where your alma mater is

The handwriting in the card from Lisa, a ‘current student’ at Melbourne University, is round, non-cursive and friendly – the script a ten-year-old would use to write ‘I love ponies!’

‘I’m sorry that I rang you at an inconvenient time,’ it reads. ‘It would have been a pleasure for me to tell you a little bit about “Believe – the campaign for The University of Melbourne.’” We’re aiming to raise $500 million by 2017 in order to transform lives through scholarships, community programs, and research.’

Firstly, it would have been a pleasure? Geez, how kids have fun has changed since I was a student.

Secondly, yes, universities are struggling financially and the federal government has cut university funding by twenty per cent.  But should our institutions be asking for donations to fill the gap?

Universities in Australia have charitable status, which means they are legally allowed to ask for donations. However, they are now multimillion-dollar businesses with the deregulation of fees effectively turning ‘higher education over to the market’. Students are now ‘customers’, and education ‘a consumer good’.

Like heads of business, Australian vice-chancellors are raking in pretty big salary packages, too, making the notion of asking for handouts a bit odd. They earn an average of $800,000 a year – twice what the prime minister does, at least ten times more than academic staff, and, we can assume, a hell of a lot more than administration staff (and yet, an acquaintance I spoke to recalls being regularly hit up for donations when working in university admin).

Melbourne University Vice Chancellor Glyn Davis is one of three uni heads who earn over $1 million a year. To put that into a charitable context, the chief executive of World Vision, Tim Costello, earns $316,000. Imagine the outrage if he earned over a million bucks annually? Or if Alan Joyce, CEO of Qantas, asked for donations for Qantas?

But, despite running their universities like businesses, in the US, alumni give wads of cash to their universities – on average fifty per cent of former students donate to their beloved alma maters. So, the argument goes, surely if we can structure our higher education in the same way, we too can generate such philanthropic alumni?

It’s not that simple. In the US, despite student debt increases coinciding with rising salaries for university heads, students forge great bonds with the institution and are ‘bound to the university for life.’ There, the university views students ‘not as a consumer of a product but as someone in which the institution has co-invested.’

I began my degree at Melbourne University before the Melbourne Model came in. I knew all the administration staff in creative arts – her name was Jackie – and all the other students.  It was cosy. Our lecturers took us to the pub and spent hours of their time talking to us individually about writing. I, too, felt ‘great bonds’. But, by the time I left, my degree had been cut, forcing me to switch, my class size doubled and most of my teachers had been fired – God knows what happened to Jackie – and suddenly admin was completed by faceless queues of students which took hours. I didn’t recognise one person at my graduation ceremony.

The Melbourne course was designed, in part, in response to economic changes and to give students a ‘better and richer’ experience. Perhaps, in time, it will, and we will feel ‘great bonds’ that make us want to give great wads of cash. But currently in Australia there is no sense of a ‘co-investment’. We seem to be missing the warm, fuzzy feelings part that former students have in the States.

Instead, there is a sense that Australian universities treat students as consumers of ‘a product for which a service is delivered and once that service is delivered the transaction is effectively at an end.’

Therefore, despite their charitable status, Australian universities asking alumni for money is rather like a person buying, say, a really expensive lawnmower from the hardware shop and then five years later getting a handwritten card from the hardware shop asking for donations … for the hardware shop.

Also, unlike in the States, there is no clear explanation of where exactly that $500 million is going, with donors only able to specify in the most general terms where they want their cash to go. It’s not possible, for example, to donate to the creative writing department.

The philanthropic funding coming in is also largely ‘untied’ which means Melbourne University can do pretty much whatever it wants with it, triggering the hypothetical questions, such as, ‘What if the university directs the money into military research’ or ‘funds research for the benefit of an organisation that is ultimately owned by a multinational tobacco company?’

And while some millionaires may celebrate that some current students are donating ‘$10 or $20’ of their ‘limited funds to help others’ – and certainly, generosity is an attribute we as a society would like our future grown-ups to possess – it makes no sense when the goal for the campaign is ‘entirely about supporting students.’ It’s like World Vision asking war-displaced refugees for money to provide themselves with shelter and food.

Philanthropy is noble, and pragmatically we may indeed need more of it to fill the space that funding cuts have left behind. Donations to universities are increasing and universities are full steam ahead on focusing on philanthropy as a major source of income. The larger universities have expert advisors and can have between ‘30 and 50 people who are working behind the scenes fundraising’.

But if we are going to pass the mortarboard around, how about we ask all the vice-chancellors to throw a few hundred grand of their annual wages in? Perhaps we could get Lisa to ask them in a sweet, hand-written card.

Melissa Howard

New Zealand-born Melissa Howard lives in Melbourne where she writes short stories, articles and essays.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *