Tuckwell Scholarship a Blessing

With triumphal fanfare the ANU recently announced the establishment of a new $50 million undergraduate scholarship program. The gift of alumnus Graham Tuckwell and his wife Louise, intends to not only financially support 25 new ‘Tuckwell Scholars’ each year to the tune of $100,000 over the course of their degree but to provide access to a Scholars House, tailored mentorship program and eventually an alumni network. Not that this comes to the students without some sort of Faustian bargain, eliciting from scholars a kind of noblesse oblige, an avowed commitment ‘to build and strengthen Australia as a nation’. Stirring stuff.

Indeed there should be more of it. What Tuckwell’s generosity highlights in being the single largest donation by an Australian Citizen is the paltry state of Australian philanthropy, especially in higher education. This is surprising, given how many people owe their prosperity and health to universities. Scholarships, for example, one of the areas traditionally funded by philanthropy, are in Australia fairly limited. University scholarships tend to be narrowly focused with criteria narrowly focused on problematic measures of talent like the ATAR. Privately funded scholarships, on the other hand, like the Charles Hawker Scholarship, while more open to considering a person’s character, are few in number and in means. The Tuckwell Scholarship is therefore both rare and precious, and is a gift not just because of its inherent value, but in its value to inspire and encourage similar philanthropy in Australia.

Philanthropic gifts to Universities have a long and venerable history, as have the rewards. The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge and their colleges have long been the recipients of large gifts both monetary and cultural. Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VII were the financial founders of Christ Church College in Oxford, which although paid for through the liquidation of monasteries, created an institution which would incubate thirteen British Prime Ministers, scientists like Robert Hooke and Joseph Banks, and creative minds like Lewis Carroll and W. H. Auden.

Oxford has always encouraged philanthropic generosity – only last week the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford received a £10 million bequest of rare renaissance silver treasures from the collector Michael Wellby.  The Rhodes Scholarship founded in 1903 gave the opportunity for over 7000 students from around the world to pursue graduate studies. Whatever his faults, the legacy of the ‘empire builder’ Cecil Rhodes endures. Many Australians have gone on to enjoy Rhodes Scholarships including Bob Hawke, Tony Abbott and other notable Australians, including a Governor General, two Nobel Laureates and several High Court Judges. However, the funding of scholarships like this are rare, but there is some sense in being optimistic.

In 2012, the widow of Ahmet Ertegun founder of Atlantic records gave one of the largest ever gifts to the University of Oxford for graduate humanities scholarships. In gifting the £26 million sum raised from Led Zeppelin’s comeback concert, Mica Ertegun affirmed “In these times, when there is so much strife in the world, I believe it is tremendously important to support those things that endure across time, that bind people together from every culture, and that enrich the capacity of human beings to understand one another and make the world a more humane place”.

Philanthropy is however done best by the Americans.  Endowments of universities in the United States show this ready culture of giving. Harvard’s endowment, despite some setbacks during the Global Financial Crisis, remains the largest in the world, worth around $35 billion. Even smaller institutions can boast endowments of around $3 billion. Endowments of Australian universities by contrast barely reach $1 billion; ANU’s endowment rests around $1.2billion with the University of Melbourne not far behind.

Educational philanthropy is best illustrated by the efforts of Bill Gates, whose foundation regularly funds and promotes various initiatives and programs across the world towards the goal of expanding educational opportunities. His gifts included $210 million towards a Gates Scholars program at Cambridge and over $1 billion alone towards the Gates Millennium Scholars program for minority students in the US. Yet it’s not just wealthy individuals who are responsible for this giving – in 2011 alone over $30 billion was collectively gifted to various colleges, universities and other educational establishments.

There exists no law or rule that people must be generous, and nor should there be; that would be contrary to the spirit in which they are given. However it is arguable that there does exist a moral duty to be generous, to share that which you have earned from others both financially and intellectually. Indeed, if even for pure self-interest, giving makes sense.

Universities as places of learning, teaching and research provide a service that ripples out into society, inspiring a promising individual, discovering a new scientific, philosophical or technological advancement. Funding that promising individual who could not otherwise attend university, or funding that project that no government can or would can produce great results. However you look at it, whether as a collective benefit or an individual opportunity to exploit, giving can produce favorable outcomes. We as Australians need to awaken ourselves to what a little generosity can achieve, as others recognised. Some of our largest donations are coming from overseas, as the $19 million Picasso donated by an anonymous American in 2012 towards medical research into obesity at the University of Sydney demonstrates.

As dwindling public funds are spread thinner and thinner, we can only hope that Australians take the initiative to be generous. This would ensure that universities can continue to function without the threat of budget knife hovering like a guillotine; this would ensure financial rationalisation not leading to the gutting of areas less favorable to a cost-benefit analysis, like music. Universities, long before government funding, were supported through the gifts of individuals, and while there aren’t too many monasteries to dissolve, we certainly have many who have made fortunes through intellect, imagination and a fiery determination to succeed.

Things are looking up, Michael Spence the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney oversaw a massive push for philanthropic donations, with a businessman handing over $20 million last year for the foundation of a project leadership centre. But the latest news of the Tuckwell Scholarship at the ANU looks like it could beckon in a new era of generosity. The ANU Vice-Chancellor Ian Young expressed the hope that the Tuckwell gift “will act as a catalyst for other philanthropists to make similar donations to Australian universities”. If this turns out to be true, it could be the most valuable gift ever made.