Successful college and university alumni in the United States serve as more than just a source of pride and a possible selling point for their schools — they also serve as a potential funding pool for the schools’ endowment funds. Donating to one’s alma mater has a proud tradition in America, but though relatively few American schools rival England’s oldest universities either in quality or prestige, the same kind of “giving back” tradition hasn’t arisen in the United Kingdom. And now, Michael Moritz, who is an Oxford University alumnus, is attempting to change that with the Moritz-Heyman Scholarship Programme, funded, in part, by a personal £75 million donation.
By setting up the programme as a challenge fund, the foundation seeks commitments from the university itself, the business community, and, hopefully, other successful Oxford alumni to match Moritz’s donation with that of their own. The initial commitments mean that the programme with begin operating with an endowment of nearly £300 million and will fund scholarships that will go towards assisting low-income students in covering tuition and various fees associated with attending universities like Oxford and Cambridge.
It is the largest programme of its kind in European history and a huge step for a university that has struggled to shake off its past reputation for exclusivity and privilege. Furthermore, ever since the introduction of tuition fees, the possibility of debt deterring poorer students has been of grave concern to policymakers. This donation is an evolutionary step in the debate around broadening access.
Since the Coalition government lifted the limits that universities can charge for undergraduate tuition, the total costs of attending an Oxbridge school have risen to nearly £11,000 a year. On the surface, it would seem that the establishment of a scholarship fund to assist those most in need is timely. Yet some, like Daniel Knowles, think that these kinds of bursaries are not the best way of spending money if the goal is to increase income diversity in Britain’s top universities. Knowles believes that this money would be better spent on increasing the quality of state school graduates via summer school programs and similar efforts. Surely, if not enough low-income students are making Oxbridge their ultimate academic goal, it is because they are either unprepared or unaware of the possibility of achieving such thing.
The problem with this view is that millions of pounds are already poured into outreach projects each year by our universities. Yet a recent, devastating report revealed that five top schools (of which only one is in the state sector) sent more students to Oxbridge over a three-year period than 2,000 comprehensive schools combined. Part of the responsibility for this failure lies with our school system, which our Education Secretary is valiantly battling to reform. But the fruits of this approach will only become apparent in the mid to long term. Dealing with entrenched perceptions (whether passed on from teachers, peers, or whoever) that prevent children from less affluent backgrounds applying to our top universities needs bold, urgent and immediate action.