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In tough times, University turns to philanthropy

Max Chalmers looks into why the University will be hitting you up for cash when you get a real job

Max Chalmers looks into why the University will be hitting you up for cash when you get a real job

When the University of Sydney started looking for savings last year, the first victims were not academics, or even students – they were refugees. One of the first programs that saw its funding evaporate was the Refugee Language Program (RLP), an initiative which had provided English language tutoring for hundreds of young refugees. But after having its funding withdrawn, the RLP was resurrected by a former CEO involved in the program who offered to cover the costs through fundraising and his own cash. The revival of the RLP is emblematic of a broader change taking place in the University. With federal funding unreliable, donations and bequests are becoming an increasingly important part of the University’s funding model.

This change was literally put up in lights during last week’s launch of the ‘Inspired’ campaign, which aims to raise $600 million. So as to avoid any accusations of subtlety, the University erected a neon sign in the shape of the sum and pitched it on the Front Lawns: a giant illuminated dollar figure lighting up the cold grass. Since 2008, when the drive began, the University has raised more thans $310 million.

The timing of the announcement is apt, coming just weeks after the Labor Government decided to slash $2.8 billion from tertiary education spending over the coming two years – a dreary commitment the Coalition has promised to match.

University of Sydney Provost Stephen Garton said that, in this political climate, reproducing the philanthropic success of other major universities had become a necessity.

“If you look at Harvard, that’s 36 billion of donations coming through a variety of sources that keep them going and make them the best University in the world. We won’t survive unless we do that,” he said.

With last year’s average donation coming in at around $8 000, it is clear that some alumni are prepared to dig deep for the cause. Recent donations have included a Picasso painting, sold this year at auction for over $20 million, and a $20 million gift from former WorleyParsons CEO John Grill to establish the John Grill Centre for Project Leadership.

Though apparently successful, the University’s fundraising efforts do come off a little too strong from time to time. In a four minute video posted on the University’s website to encourage further philanthropy, dozens of students and academics sing their thanks to donors to the sounds of a full orchestral score. In the bizarre performance, the lyrics of Gaudeamus Igitur are replaced by corny lines about the importance of University museums and research.

Yes, federal funding has finally fallen to a point where universities are forced to sing for their collective suppers.

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