How much do we as students, believe in our own institution? How much will we care about this university, the people and the ideas it represents in five, ten, twenty years time? And what will that mean for the students to follow who will walk in our shoes?
Though these may seem like questions to ponder at a later date, when we’re not so busy with that essay, coffee date or the artful procrastination of another society social, they should be important to students now.
The fees debate has raised a number of questions about what a degree means to a student, how much it should be valued at and who should pay. The UK mantra maintains that the government should pay for education, whilst our US counterparts rely heavily, and successfully, on alumni donations. Having taken part in several alumni fundraising campaigns, I’ve spoken to hundreds of our graduates, all of whom express heartfelt nostalgia for this little town of ours. However, there is a vast difference between US and UK attitudes to financially supporting their Alma Mater; though their fondness is equally shared, the level of ‘love’ alumni hold is not reflected in their donations.
According to James Darling, one of our JSA alumnus and alumni of Hampden Sydney College in Virginia, universities establish a kind of “brotherhood, where shared living quarters, small class size, and a similar social sphere inherently tie students to students.” US institutions capitalize on this, through fraternities, sororities and sports matches. The societies, coffee or dinner party scenes in the UK seem to play a similar role, though these are inherently more fractured. American colleges also draw graduates back by keeping them involved with university life and nurturing those emotional ties that encourage continued financial support.
Louise Richardson is noted as being a strong advocate of US alumni involvement as well as its fundraising and endowment model. In her last instalment speech, the Principal proposed maintaining the University’s competitive edge by building an endowment that would open our doors to the finest students and staff. Financial restrictions have clearly deterred a number of bright applicants; a reported 90% of students who turn down a confirmed place at St Andrews report doing so because they simply can’t afford to come here. There is clearly a great deal that can be learned from US alumni, though there remain fundamental differences in the giving cultures of the UK and US.
American giving is tied to a number of factors and facilitated by making donations to higher education tax-deductible. Sport is one element mentioned that is hard to replicate in the UK. US universities are identifiable both as centers of education and sport, indicative in their sports teams. The college sport culture is highly pervasive; ‘tailgate’ parties at games bring together entire families, along with students, staff and alumni, thus giving a chance for networking that has no real British equivalent. In addition to this, US colleges recognize their donors in a number of public ways; recent graduates are sometimes rewarded for their donations through invitations to alumni networking drinks or dinner parties, whilst the press coverage for big donors is good for a business’ publicity.
A recent example of this is the $50 million donation to Harvard Business School by India’s Tata Group, the chairman of which was an alumus at the school. In addition to this, big donations can drastically change the standing of a university in America. League tables such as the esteemed Princeton Review, are considered by all employers; a higher rating means a greater chance of being hired. Part of the evaluation for such league tables is ‘alumni satisfaction’, which is directly assessed by rates of giving.
British alumni involvement with their universities simply does not appear to meet the same standards as it does in America. Here, alumni are rarely given an opportunity to return to their universities and it seems St Andrews is suffering all the more from its remoteness. But there is more to this issue than just asking for donations. A much greater number of students benefit from scholarship programs at top schools in the US, and smaller institutions compete in the tables by providing high levels of student support. As a result, these colleges attract the best and the brightest by removing financial barriers. Students who benefit from a stellar education and its associated employability are more likely to give back to their scholarship program and thus provide for more of the ‘best’. With substantial government funding in the past, British students looked to the state rather than to their institution for funding, and as a result the ‘emotional debt’ created by a scholarship does not exist in the UK. This will need to change as both students and universities face receiving less governmental support in the future.
For better or for worse, universities are often regarded as service providers, offering an education and a degree certificate that will better the lives of those who partake in it. People in the UK judge a degree by the institution providing it, established by its ranking. Fortunately in our case, St Andrews rests on its historic reputation, but it is still low on the table for graduate employment. According to the Sunday Times University Guide League Table, just 64 out of 100 students receive graduate employment, compared to high 80s for UCL, Imperial and Oxbridge. If a university’s name doesn’t help in finding a job then there is even less of a pragmatic need to keep up ties. It is largely accepted that, to get the best jobs, students need the best provisions and the highest name recognition; so all competitive universities need to get the best through the door in the first place. More US style ‘school pride’ and just a little generosity could go a long way on this side of the pond. With 60,000 alumni still actively tied to our university, just £20 from each would put 80 Wardlaw scholars through four years at St Andrews. So, with this much touted 600th anniversary, and the Graduate gift fast approaching, it would do us some good to think less about tomorrow’s pint, and more about next year’s job application.