Australian universities fell into a deep development slumber for many years and paid the price. Daniel McDiarmid asks if our tertiary institutions have at last awoken and seen the light.

Although the early histories of several Australian universities (such as Adelaide, Western Australia, RMIT, Sydney and Queensland) tell the stories of great philanthropy, private support diminished during the post WWII period of rapid expansion of universities and university enrolment.

As the Commonwealth lost its appetite for fully funding universities over the last decade, one might have expected universities to turn again to private benefaction, but rather, they put their hope in international student fees. Only now, when international markets have proved fickle, have universities raised their expectations about the role of philanthropy.

The Great Awakening is the name applied to the religious revival in the USA in the second quarter of the 18th century led by Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. It had a profound effect on the people of that country, and particularly on the religious institutions.

In Australian university fundraising, we see some profound developments which may come to have a significant effect on Australians and the ways we interact with our institutions of higher education and research.

These changes include: success in international grant seeking; growth in the number of senior development positions; greater attention to donor stewardship and ensuring that donor-funded projects are reported back to donors; attention to endowment management and the actuarial calculations that maintain real value in perpetuity yet pay out the scholarship or professorial stipend year in year out.

There have been some singular successes in fundraising over the last decade, but few have proved sustainable or become deeply embedded in the institutional culture. Only a few institutions have enjoyed continuity of personnel and budget for more than a few years.

But there are signs of hope. Some university staff and former staff have proved to be wonderfully loyal and are among the largest donors to universities through bequests. The Atlantic Philanthropies’ support of universities with well over $100million in recent years has also inspired many to the possibilities of private funding.

While few vice chancellors other than Professor John Hay of The University of Queensland say much about fundraising and the importance of philanthropy, others are showing their interest in the clearest way possible, by the establishment of staff positions within the senior executive ranks.

The University of New South Wales under vice chancellor Professor Rory Hume deserves the credit for creating the first of these positions, but neither Professor Hume nor his appointee, Jane Bloomfield were able to establish the role successfully and UNSW has established a lower level position to lead the development activities at that university.

Other senior fundraising positions created in recent times are: vice-principal of university relations at the University of Sydney (Don Wilson), and vice-president (advancement) at Monash University (Ron Fairchild).

Other universities have elevated the function to the senior ranks and combined it with another functional area. These positions include: the Queensland University of Technology deputy vice chancellor (international and development), Prof. Sandra Harding; the University of Western Sydney DVC development and international, Prof. Chung-Tong Wu; Edith Cowan University DVC students, advancement and international, Prof. John Wood; and there is the new position at the University of Melbourne, DVC (innovation and development) yet to be filled.

Chancellors of the nations’ universities also meet from time to time, and fundraising is now an item on their agenda. One can expect that it won’t be long before this translates into questions about the role of the universities’ governing bodies in fundraising – something that the recent debate about the size and composition of university governing bodies seems to have missed.

Don Wilson is quoted in the University of Sydney’s alumni publication, Gazette (April 05), saying “We need to be unapologetic about seeking private support from alumni and friends. It’s one of the most effective ways to support our world-class teaching and research, to hold down student fees and inoculate our budget against shrinking government funding.”

There are many who hope that Don and his DVC colleagues will lead the Great Awakening of philanthropy and corporate support for our universities. Let’s hope the nation is responsive to their call.

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