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Cambridge isn’t as rich as you think

Reflections on working for the Telephone Campaign


My expectation that I would be skint by the end of the summer has been realised. I am therefore immensely glad I had the foresight back in Easter term to sign up for Downing’s well-paid Telephone Campaign, a scheme which involves ringing up alumni and persuading them to donate to the college. I am two weeks in, and it has been an interesting and enlightening experience, despite the mundane toil of trawling through phone numbers and getting mostly voicemails.

One alumnus who I spoke to, now in his sixties, said wryly, “Oh, so it’s the annual begging campaign” after I explained who I was and why I was calling. His remark is actually somewhat apt. And to an outsider, this whole concept may seem rather baffling. Certainly, when I first heard about the campaign, my initial reaction was: Surely Cambridge is rich enough already? And indeed, on paper, Cambridge University is wealthier than any other British university with £4 billion of assets.

But the key word there is ‘assets’. Assets are not tangible. Many colleges simply do not have enough spare cash to fund things such as supervisions, bursaries and building work, and depend on the telephone campaign to keep afloat.

Cambridge’s Endowment Fund holds and invests donations made to the University, its Colleges and charitable trusts. The return from investment is the real money which the colleges can spend on their students.

However, some colleges enjoy a much more sizeable endowment others. For example, Trinity has an endowment of £1.34 billion, and therefore has around £55 million spending money from the return investment (Trinity is rich). Meanwhile, Downing’s endowment is 45.5 million, leaving the college a mere £2 million to support its students.

On average, one student at Cambridge costs the University around £18 000 annually – double the value of our tuition fees. It costs around £58 000 a year just to support a single College Teaching Officer. Two million is therefore simply not enough to cover this shortfall.

Colleges are also duty-bound to fund extra financial support for students from low income backgrounds. Cambridge actually does a better job of this than most other UK universities; it boasts one of the most generous bursary systems in the country, offering non-repayable grants of up to £3500 every year.

When I explain my own personal situation to the alumni on the other end of the phone (I am in receipt of a bursary and have benefitted from a travel grant as well as emergency financial support), they nearly always choose to donate, because they realise that their money is going to where it is really needed.

Downing’s priorities include funding hardship grants and book grants, as well as supporting the supervision system and preserving the college’s historic buildings. The college's Development Office work hard to ensure funds are spent proportionately and fairly.

The University of Cambridge isn’t as wealthy as you might assume. There are huge discrepancies between the colleges, and money isn’t frittered away unnecessarily. Don’t believe every headline you read…