Should universities ever accept donations from hopeful parents?

Gillian Tett:

This aversion to unfair influence is so deeply ingrained at some colleges that when I applied to Cambridge, three decades ago, my schoolteachers sternly warned me to avoid mentioning that my father had attended the same institution. Having a parental link was seen as a potential black mark, not a help.

To US ears this may seem bizarre. For while most of the country’s elites may recoil from the idea of outright fraud, the notion of using “legacy” connections is regarded as par for the course.

In the UK, however, Cambridge’s stance is unremarkable. If anything, British universities have become more outspoken against parental pressure in recent years, while such influence-peddling has quietly proliferated in the US.

“Family connections or donations do not, and will not, play a role in that assessment process,” insists a Cambridge spokesperson. There is, in other words, a cultural gulf.

Does this mean that the British system is more “fair”? Not necessarily. Money and class still buy privilege aplenty in the UK, albeit in a more subtle way, via access to select schools: a report from the Sutton Trust last year showed that almost half of all Oxbridge places go to children at private schools, although only 7 per cent of kids in the UK attend these.

If you look at the issue from a wider social perspective, the issue of “fairness” becomes more nuanced. The perception that American parents can use legacy links and donations to boost their children’s chances of following in their footsteps pushes many of them to try to do precisely that, which helps to explain why many of them stay closely in touch with – and give generously to – their alma mater. (Of course, many also give in the spirit of disinterested philanthropy; but self-interest cannot be ignored.)