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Universities seek alumni support


Cite as: (2003) 77(8) LIJ, p.27

Changes in government financial support have resulted in universities looking to former students as a source of funding.

Victorian university law schools’ alumni are increasingly being seen as an important additional source of revenue.

Dean of Melbourne University’s Law School Professor Ian Ramsay said governments were providing less funds for tertiary education and that left universities with some stark options in trying to raise funds.

“You either contract – and that typically affects the quality of your programs, the number of courses that you can offer, the size of your classes, all sorts of things – or you endeavour to identify alternative sources of funding for the university.”

One of the more obvious alternatives, aside from the introduction of fee-paying programs, is the use of alumni.

Melbourne University’s law school, nearing 150 years old, has the most substantial alumni base of all universities in the state. It currently has 8347 alumni, 7600 of which are in Australia and 747 are based overseas.

As part of a wider bid to strengthen relations with alumni, Melbourne University has launched a formal fundraising drive this year aimed specifically at its past students.

While the law school has previously received funding for specific needs from the Law School Foundation – which receives support from individuals and law firms and whose board essentially consists of alumni – it is the first time the law school has launched a fundraising drive targeting former students.

Money raised will be used for several purposes, including the establishment and granting of scholarships, either based on academic merit or targeted towards those in disadvantaged socio-economic groups. The money will also be used to contribute towards establishment bursaries to help students with the costs of beginning university studies such as relocating from interstate and buying books, study aids and other resources.

Funds raised will also be used to purchase resources for the university’s legal resource centre.

Professor Ramsay said the need to raise funds for the library, in particular, has arisen partly as a result of increasing costs of law books and journals published in international markets.

“The dilemma is that over the past few years in a library like Melbourne 80 per cent of its holdings – journals and books – are purchased from overseas,” he said.

“What that means is that when the [Australian] dollar declines as it has over the past few years ... our library is just not able to purchase the number of books and journals that it could a number of years ago.”

Monash University asks alumni to give directly about twice a year but donations come in at various times.

Funds raised are used for a variety of purposes. The most recent “giving campaign” involved raising money for the Springvale Monash Legal Service where students at the law school undertake clinical practice.

Faculty of Law development manager Janet Harris said that the money raised through its alumni program – the faculty currently has around 7500 alumni – has increased each year but declined to comment on how much it totals.

“We realise that all of our alumni have demands on their philanthropic giving,” Ms Harris said. “We are gratified to see, though, that giving in the past few years continues to increase and we believe that is reflective of the growing relationship between alumni and the law school.”

Law schools in Australia are generally believed to raise only modest sums from alumni in contrast to their North American counterparts where the highest echelons of law schools raise amounts ranging into the hundreds of millions from their alumni.

Professor Ramsay suggested that law schools in Australia would be lucky to raise $100,000 a year from alumni.

“I’d be surprised if any law school in the country on an annual basis reached close to that sort of figure. In fact, I would typically expect it to be closer to half that,” he said.

“Alumni can be very generous in a number of ways. But I think it’s hard to contemplate that we’ll ever reach the situation that’s occurred in the elite US universities or law schools.”

Victoria University has not yet graduated its first law students but anticipates that its students will create a law school chapter for their alumni.

Acting head of alumni relations Bruce Mortimer said that Victoria University was also looking at alumni as a source of funding.

“They are certainly looking at current students as a greater source of income since the federal government is rolling back their funding and alumni, as I suppose is the case in other countries, is a key source of funding,” he said. “That will be something we’ll be doing and we’ll be launching an annual giving campaign either later this year or early next year for alumni.”

Mr Mortimer pointed out that one of the difficulties universities face was encouraging a “culture of giving”.

“It perhaps doesn’t exist in the Australian context and even aside from the actual giving side of things, you have the strong concept of the alma mater in the US. In Australia, for most people, that connection isn’t as strong,” he said.

“Most universities have been putting an increasing amount of energy into creating or maintaining relationships once a student has graduated and moved on. And certainly not just for the purpose of in the future getting money from them. More for creating a strong and vibrant community which will give graduates some fantastic opportunities for networking.”

La Trobe University’s dean of law Dr Oliver Mendelsohn said that while it was easy to say that universities had to look more towards alternative approaches to funding, “you’ve got to also convince the Australian population that it is a personal obligation among the many competing claimants for their money to support their university”.

“It’s not clear that that culture has developed very far in Australia.”

La Trobe does not have a formal alumni as yet but may move toward this in the future.

While the law school began as an academic unit in 1972, it has only run a bachelor of laws program since 1992 and as such only has a limited alumni base.

“Thus far we’ve seen our capacity to approach our alumni for their support to be limited,” Dr Mendelsohn said.

He hoped the school would develop a “concrete plan” for approaching alumni for support in the near future, but added: “We’re very wary of just being seen to put our hand out in a crass manner to our alumni”.

Dr Mendelsohn said the process had to be seen as one that added value to both sides of the equation.

“We want them to see that by La Trobe law progressing, by us becoming a stronger law school, by our reputation growing, their own career prospects are enhanced,” he said.

“We want our alumni to pave the way for our present and future graduates, to assist them and act as mentors, to generally enhance the standing of the program, to be willing to assist us in kind – for example, to act as moot judges and so on. We don’t see the alumni as merely a source of revenue, but sure we would like them also to support the school to the best of their ability.”

Deakin University was invited to contribute to this article but declined.

Professor Ramsay said Melbourne Law School’s “giving appeal” had generally been seen as an important step forward.

“However, we need to be not overly optimistic ... obviously it’s a difficult economic climate,” he said.

“But I think that everyone I’ve spoken to – including a reference group of alumni that we’ve set up to advise – has said that it’s not just important but essential that we move down this path,” Professor Ramsay said.


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