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For almost 1,000 years the leaders of the University of Oxford sought financial aid in medieval courts and cathedrals. In April, Andrew Hamilton, Oxford’s vice-chancellor, found a new venue: the mansion of a Silicon Valley billionaire. Over artichoke soup and halibut at the San Francisco home of Oxford alumnus Michael Moritz, a venture capitalist and early Google (GOOG) investor, Hamilton told 50-odd technology entrepreneurs that the oldest university in the English-speaking world needed their support.
Oxford faces an estimated 78 percent, or £47 million ($75 million), cut in annual government funding for teaching in 2012. So Hamilton is trolling for money around the globe. The former provost of Yale University is importing American techniques for fundraising and heads a record-setting £1.25 billion capital campaign. Among his priorities is creating the kind of lifelong alumni loyalty—and giving—common at prestigious U.S. universities. “There are twice the number of alumni of Oxford than at Yale,” Hamilton says. “Our undergraduate body is twice the size of Harvard’s, twice the size of Yale’s, twice the size of Stanford’s. The potential for Oxford is enormous.”
The British-born Hamilton, the son of two teachers, was raised in Guildford, southwest of London, and studied chemistry at the University of Exeter. After earning his PhD at the University of Cambridge, he sought teaching positions in the U.S. in 1981 and stayed for almost 30 years. He spent 11 years at Yale, following stints at Princeton University and the University of Pittsburgh. Since joining Oxford in October 2009, he’s increased financial aid for low-income students; hired the former director of alumni relations at Harvard Business School to run a similar office at Oxford; and recruited Peter Tufano, a professor at HBS, to head Oxford’s Said Business School.
Under Hamilton, Oxford set a fundraising record in 2009-10 when it hauled in £240 million, more than double the previous year’s total. Oxford also landed a £75 million donation in September from U.S. billionaire Len Blavatnik to establish a school of government. Says Mark Damazer, master of Oxford’s St. Peter’s College: “He conforms to the spirit of American optimism.”
Hamilton has made fundraising a priority at Oxford as Britain slashes higher education subsidies by at least £2 billion by 2015 to help reduce its deficit. Oxford says it will lose about £4,700 per student in government funds starting in 2012. To compensate, Parliament will allow U.K. colleges to raise their maximum tuition to £9,000 a year from £3,375.
To attract donations, Hamilton must overcome a culture that has long regarded higher education as an entitlement. U.K. college students paid nothing for tuition until 1998, when they were charged £1,000 and received grants and loans for living expenses. In 2006, tuition was raised to £3,000.
“For years and years people just became used to the idea that university was paid for by the state,” says Giles Henderson, the master of Oxford’s Pembroke College. “That was broadly the position, which was completely daft, and particularly daft at Oxford.” An Oxford education, where students are tutored by faculty in groups of two, is the product of a “Rolls-Royce teaching system,” and the graduates who benefit should be expected to contribute, Henderson says. Only about 15 percent of Oxford graduates donate to the school, Hamilton says. That compares with 47 percent at Princeton, 44 percent at Dartmouth, and 19 percent for Harvard, according to 2010 data compiled by the Council for Aid to Education. The combined endowments of Oxford and its colleges of £3.33 billion in 2010 were dwarfed by those of rich U.S. schools such as Harvard, with a $27.4 billion trove, and Yale, with $16.7 billion.
Oxford alumni include 26 Prime Ministers, 12 saints, and notables such as Adam Smith, William Penn, and Rupert Murdoch. But at Moritz’s Bay Area home, Hamilton piqued the interest of wealthy Americans who had no connection to Oxford. “People like him and gravitate to him,” says Moritz, who, with his wife, gave $50 million to his college, Christ Church, in 2008. “And he’s not shy about asking for money.”
The bottom line: Oxford University, which has educated Britain’s elite for 10 centuries, is fundraising aggressively to offset U.K. government aid cuts.