ASIA: The rise of higher education philanthropy

Universities around Asia watched with envy as Singapore's Nanyang Technological University received a US$120 million donation from the Lee Foundation early this year - the largest amount from a private donor received by a single institution in Singapore - and when Lei Zhang from China donated US$8,888,888 (eight is a lucky number) to Yale University in the United States.

With such headline amounts at a time when universities are internationalising and diversifying from dependence on public funding, more attention is being paid to philanthropic higher education fundraising in Asia.

Philanthropy in higher education is not new in the region. Hong Kong Billionaire Li Ka Shing's HK$1billion (US$128 million) donation to Hong Kong University in 2005 was the largest single amount the university had ever received and at the time the largest donation to a university in Asia.

Li, who is said to be Asia's richest man, has also donated to other top universities in Hong Kong and Singapore and to Shantou University in China, close to where he was born.

Despite the eye-catching 'lucky' figure involving a string of eights, Lei Zhang's donation to Yale pales beside some received by universities in China.

Last year electronics billionaire Duan Yongping and his wife Liu Xin, a journalist, donated US$30 million to their alma mater Renmin University in Beijing. In 2006 Duan donated US$37 million, a record high for China at the time, to Zhejiang University on China's East Coast where he had been an engineering undergraduate.

Although universities in Hong Kong, Singapore and China are well-funded by their governments, university research departments are compared internationally in global rankings, so endowment funding for research scholarships has become more important.

And with universities hoping to attract international students or become regional education hubs, they want to upgrade their facilities, including libraries and sports facilities.

"If you want to be excellent and add value you have to get a little extra," Tsui Lap-Chee, Vice-chancellor of Hong Kong University (HKU), told a conference in Hong Kong in March. "We have to raise all sorts of money to support activities outside the classroom. University education is a totality of experience at the university."

The donation from Dang and Liu went in part to set up a journalism school at Renmin University, including equipping state-of-the-art broadcasting studios, as well as journalism scholarships, a new library and a journalistic research fund, something that was unlikely to come from public funds.

Countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and to some extent China have understood that philanthropy needs to be encouraged.

The HK$1 billion donation from Li was "trend-setting", said HKU's Tsui. It prompted a new drive to encourage donations to universities in Asia. That in turn required a change in attitude towards university fund-raising to a more professional way of encouraging donors. "If you don't ask, they won't give," said Tsui.

In Hong Kong many people think the culture of giving in higher education is new, Tsui added. Yet HKU was founded on huge donations for its buildings, and for a period of its history was funded by endowments set up by donors during the British colonial era.

In Singapore some seven university faculties have been named after major donors in the last decade, after a hiatus when donations were mainly for professorships and scholarships bearing the donor's name.

Like universities in Hong Kong, Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the Singapore Management University (SMU) all now have their own staff to attract donations from alumni and further afield.

For example, in March Indonesia's Lippo group announced S$5 million (US$4 million) for scholarships for students from China and Indonesia to study at SMU. In 2007 it donated S$21 million (US$17 million) towards the new NUS business school.

Although alumni are very important, half of the donations from individuals tend to be from non-alumni, "from people in the community who value education," said Eric Thomas, Vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol, at a session on higher education philanthropy at the British Council's Going Global conference in Hong Kong in March.

The Singapore government is aware of this and has been encouraging charitable donations by providing fiscal incentives since 2007. That led to an increase in charitable foundations being set up by some of Singapore's richest families, donating to universities and medical schools.

Both Singapore and Hong Kong have encouraged giving by promising matching government funding - in Singapore's case by more than 1.5 times the donated figure.

"It is important to be clear about the role of philanthropy in universities. The notion by government that it will substitute for core funding is what it is not. In fact, if philanthropists think that's what it is, they won't give," Thomas said.

Singapore now says it wants to make it easier for international charities to donate to educational causes in the city state.

China is also becoming more aware of private donors. According to the statistical yearbook of education funding, private donations contribute around 1% of university funding in China, compared to around 5% in the US.

Local universities are not the only ones that have become aware of the generosity of Asian donors. British Universities have been tapping alumni who are resident in Asia for some time, mainly through events organised by local branches of their alumni associations. And US universities are beginning to hire 'business development' professionals with knowledge of the region.

In particular, building a relationship with potential donors is seen as a long-term strategy. "You can't just hold out your hand and expect philanthropists to give you anything," said an alumni relations manager in Hong Kong who would not be named.

And higher education philanthropy is not just charity, said Peter Cheung, Hong Kong's Secretary General for Continuing Education in Tertiary Institutions: "People do not give to poor universities, they give to excellent universities."

That is particularly true in Asia, where big-name donors not only give to the top universities in the region but to top universities in the West, as Lei Zhang's donation to Yale showed.

Tsui said and donors were "here not to help you get out of a [financial] hole, but actually they are here to help you excel".

And despite the big donations that make headlines, most philanthropic giving to universities comes from small donors.

In the past five years some 14,000 individual donors have given to HKU, said Tsui, most of them donating small amounts, and for the first time.

NUS has said it accumulated S$94 million (US$75 million) from 8,000 donors from 2009-11, averaging just over S$10,000 (US$8,000) per donor. NTU received a reported S$26 million (US$21 million) from 10,000 individual donors during the same period.

The future is also bright because, as large donations from Asian alumni to US and UK universities show, with living standards rising in emerging economies, the pool of potential philanthropists is growing.

"As society matures and as people become more affluent, I am sure philanthropy [for higher education] will become part of the culture," said Peter TS Ng, Chairman of UGSI, a group of private universities in Malaysia.

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